Comment on Zizek

July 29, 2012

[I was recently in an argument, over at An und fur sich, about Zizek’s politics – the relevant posts are here and here. After a time Adam Kotsko closed comments; since the last of my comments didn’t make it through moderation I thought I’d paste it here. Comment is below.]


Right. Here’s the quote from Zizek’s article again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology – its function is to enable us to evade the deadlock of the hedonist permissiveness which is effectively hegemonic.

Adam initially (in this comment) apparently parsed Zizek’s statement as claiming simply that patriarchy is not hegemonic. But this is not what the statement says: the statement says also that critique of patriarchy “IS today’s hegemonic ideology”. I pointed this out here.

Adam then responded as follows:

There’s a difference between the claim that mainstream liberals like to shadow-box against the kind of forthright bigots and sexists who are actually a fringe element in American society and directly identifying with those bigots and sexists as the real victims! I don’t think Zizek is doing the latter, at all. [CORRECTION: Obviously in the piece on the Roma, Zizek is identifying with the bigots as the real victims. But I don’t think he usually does that.]

It seems to me that the hardcore Fox News Republicans are a small but vocal subculture that succeeds precisely because of the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints — the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.

This is a little difficult to parse in relation to the discussion of Zizek’s statement, because it again doesn’t appear to be putting forward the same claim. Adam seems to be saying:

1) I am accusing Zizek of “identifying with the victims” of the holders of the patriarchal (or substitutes) ideology that is not hegemonic but that still has power.

2) Forthright bigots and sexists [and/or ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’ which I take it is meant to pick out roughly the same set of people?? though maybe not?] are “actually a fringe element in American society”.

[OK, on this. I’m not sure why we’re specifically talking about American society suddenly, when that’s not the focus of the Zizek or Ahmed pieces in question. But second, I don’t see any very obvious sense in which this is true. On the ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’, it depends I guess what you mean by ‘hardcore’ – which can be meant in narrow or broad ways (so some sense of this sentence will certainly be true, but not necessarily usefully so). It should be clear that regularly-Fox-News-watching-Republicans are not a fringe element in US society. As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 55 million registered members of the Republican party, which is about 26% of the adult US population. According to Pew, “40% of Republicans say they regularly watch Fox News”. And also according to Pew, about 39% of those who regularly watch Fox News identify as Republican, and about 49% as leaning Republican. Let’s go with 40% of 55 million, to get 22 million Republican party members who are also regular Fox News watchers: more than 10% of the US adult population. Presumably you have a narrower category of folk in mind with your ‘hardcore’ Fox News Republicans – but that qualifier is having to do an awful lot of work here. I don’t think the statement is persuasive without some pretty idiosyncratic senses of at least some of its terms.

On “forthright bigots and sexists”, again, it obviously depends how we understand the qualifier ‘forthright’. Still sticking with the US (for some reason) a pretty superficial google search gives me this paper, which has some useful graphs tracking various survey responses in the US from the late 70s onwards. (There’s obviously going to be heaps of excellent work in this area; I just don’t know it.) Basically attitudes to gender roles get a lot more egalitarian until the early ’90s, at which point everything plateaus. So, for instance, in the last dataset represented there (from 2008), about 70% of respondents disagreed with the claim that men are better politicians than women. That could obviously be a lot worse – but it’s hard to see it justifying the claim that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic.

On racism (which I’ll take as an initial proxy for your ‘bigotry’, just to stop this comment blowing out indefinitely), it’s equally obviously not the case that forthright bigots are a fringe population. I’ve exhausted my googling patience for now, so let’s leave the US behind – but here’s a report on survey data from eight European countries. An eye-watering 56.9% of Polish respondents believe that “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind.” In Britain it’s a mere 22.5%. Still – 45.8% of Britons agree with the statement “Because of the number of immigrants, I sometimes feel like a stranger in [country]”. More than a third (34.6%) of UK respondents agree with the statement “There is a natural hierarchy between black and white people.” And so on. Bigotry is really common. (And it’s not as if the US is untarnished in this respect either.) I don’t think you’re coming from a very convincing place when you characterise forthright bigotry and sexism as ‘fringe’, even given the slightly hazy qualifier ‘forthright’.

But putting all that aside…]

3) “the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints” (in the sentence quoted above) is “the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.”

(This is the real point:) I can’t stress enough that this isn’t what Zizek is saying in the passage under discussion. Zizek is not saying, in this sentence that I quoted and that we are discussing, that liberals have a tendency to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives. Zizek is saying that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic. Again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology

Adam – you simply haven’t defended this statement. You have defended other statements that are somewhat but not very closely related. But this statement, that Zizek writes very plainly and that is a central claim of this piece (not at all incidental illustrative material) is:

a) untrue: the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS NOT today’s hegemonic ideology. (Neither is liberal multicultural tolerance, as Zizek also claims.)

b) reactionary, because (I am claiming) it is in fact reactionary to claim that anti-racism, anti-sexism, and “the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology” are themselves hegemonic. This is an empirically incorrect view that is nevertheless widely believed and articulated from within the (reactionary and widespread) viewpoint that sees itself and its privileges as under unjust assault by the partial victories of ‘identity’ politics: feminism, civil rights, GLBT rights, etc. (This is a perspective that Zizek’s work shares with Fox News.)

Now, further to the ‘political correctness’ issue, and on a factual point – Adam wrote upthread, in response to Adswithoutproducts: “I don’t recall any anti-P.C. swipes in Living in the End Times at all.” But the article we have been discussing is published in ‘Living in the End Times’. So no. One can also consult the index of ‘Living in the End Times’ to find page references for that work’s anti-P.C. swipes, such as this one, the first listed, from pages 38-39:

As every close observer of the deadlocks arising from political correctness knows, the separation of legal justice from moral Goodness – which should be relativized and historicized – ends up in an oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any ‘organic’ social substance grounding the standards of what Orwell approvingly referred to as ‘common decency’ (all such standards having been dismissed as subordinating individual freedoms to proto-Fascist social forms), the minimalist program of laws intended simply to prevent individuals from encroaching upon one another (annoying or ‘harassing’ each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process (a ‘spurious infinity’ in Hegel’s sense) of legalisation and moralisation, known as ‘the fight against all forms of discrimination’. … In France, there are associations for obese people demanding that all public campaigns against obesity and in favour of healthy eating habits be stopped, since they damage the self-esteem of obese persons. The militants of Veggie Pride condemn the ‘speciesism’ of meat-eaters (who discriminate against animals, privileging the human animal – for them, a particularly disgusting form of ‘fascism’) and demand that ‘vegeto-phobia’ should be treated as a kind of xenophobia and proclaimed a crime. And we could extend the list to include those fighting for the right to incest-marriage, consensual murder, cannibalism…

Really this is not sophisticated argument – it is the same crass, hyperbolic, lazy, empirically inaccurate (has anyone ever used the phrase ‘vegeto-phobia’ in this sense except Zizek? Let’s check. No.) anti-‘p.c.’ polemic found in newspaper columns by Andrew Bolt or Richard Littlejohn – it just includes incidental references to Hegel, since Zizek’s audience is continental Theory nerds, rather than tabloid newspaper readers. It is not an “utterly ridiculous conspiracy theory” to place the stance articulated in these passages on the political right.


21 Responses to “Comment on Zizek”

  1. lecolonelchabert Says:

    Thanks for the outtake. It seems that it is rather kotsko and zizek who congratulate themselves so long as they are not actually chasing kids with chainsaws or shoving people into gas chambers. Zizek nay not be perfect and infallible fox and kotsko concede but lets admire that he’s *hardly ever* or at least *not always* advancing racial volk definitions and claims and inciting or apologizing for terrorism and expropriation of racial inferiors. And if well yes perhaps hes always doing that at least congratulate him for not doing it as successfully as pascal bruckner. And if yes okay he’ s actually more successful, at least congratulate him for publicing the fact that leftism and Marxism and communism have always been crass racist fascist sexist vulgarian violence and bullshit and he is the proof.

  2. duncan Says:

    ha, yes it’s really something. You’ve done years of work pointing this stuff out, of course – a real public service – but at a certain point one hits a differend i guess. though i notice aps seems to have qualms about zizek, which is encouraging.

    One of the things I think i’ve realised is that many of these zizek fans don’t have a category for fascism – they don’t know what fascism is, beyond a particular taste in uniforms and flags, and a specific plot function in hollywood blockbusters or ‘allo ‘allo. They have a very narrow conception of the right, and it just doesn’t compute that a person could be both an advocate of the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and right wing. So voyou is incredulous that someone on the right would present as Marxist, as if there weren’t a long history of precisely this, and reasonably so, given the commonalities of (purportedly) anti-bourgeois revolutionary movements. You can see it in responses to the stupid Batman movie, too: it’s critical of international finance capital’s corrupting influence; it can’t be on the right. It’d be funny if it weren’t so creepy-scary.

    I dunno quite how this squares with all the AUFS guys though given the site’s sustained critique of John Milbank – I don’t really understand how they can pick Milbank as a (semi-)crypto-reactionary but find Zizek palatable. Maybe Milbank is too Tory; willing to preserve too much of the sick decadence of liberal democratic society; or maybe it’s just that he’s too committed to reactionary church structures that the AUFS guys oppose for other reasons. But that’s just a shot in the dark.

  3. attila Says:

    I think something really changed in the map of intello product when the reaganite reaction in the US acad led by DeMan resefined the radical right. ….Nietzsche, Sade…as left (possible in US because if a unique libertarianism expressed in superhero comix and ayn rand as well as emerson etc. Once nietzsche is classed as left nothing of any interest can be right and then comes the denazivication if heidegger. But in the US a great deal if fascist culture is simply disappeared…d’Annunzio is not read…pound very little…eliot through a new critical formalusm…no junger no gentile and most significantly no rosenberg and no hitler. These students and young academics pontifivate as expefts on fascism and political antisemirism abd havent ever read hitler. Nor do they know the protocols. ..Hugely important…or the international jew…which zizek borrows hugely from.positions he has taken from the protocols…the parts borrowed from joly and vitiated…are his mist popular stuff…where machiavelli ir the elder of zipn explains how nap iii or the jooz will use the forms if liberal democracy to destroy the gentes and accomplish the opposite ic whats avowed. Schmitt too just copied this stuff. But zizeks fans dont recognize it even when zizek repeats things like ‘the jews cant preserve their own identity unless their hosts’ identity is blurred.”

  4. lecolonelchabert Says:

    Sorry thats me molly on my friend’s phone.

  5. lecolonelchabert Says:

    And then a lot of lowbrow fascist or fascistic product…Lovecraft, Ballard,Lynch…which express the core fascist affets and views especially re race and gender are construed as simply insightful and truthful.

  6. duncan Says:

    Thanks, yes, that sounds right. I ‘grew up’ in that space, so to speak, in my early twenties – I got interested in continental theory via the work of a guy called Henry Staten, who wrote on Nietzsche and Derrida, and who later promoted Zizek, blurbing him, etc. I suppose that’s partly why this stuff continues to rankle, for me – I feel it was part of my intellectual education; there’s a belated recognition of how deplorable the content was, queasiness at having found it plausible or compelling, or at least demanding engagement. And yes, there was a strong push of “don’t be so naive as to think that this content is /simply/ right wing”, where the tacit (or sometimes overt) claim is that this stuff – the ugliness of the affect, the violence, the misogyny, etc.- which is thematised, so you are “aware” of it, and presented as distant from it in a way that’s never fully explained, because you are also asked to revel in your awareness of ‘contamination’ – like Dominic’s post on Zizek’s “profanation and impurification”, as if this is somehow in itself a sophisticated thing, rather than a form of apologism – is (supposedly) getting at something that properly left analysis covers over. I think the connection to Ballard, Lynch, Lovecraft – also, a bit later Houellebecq etc. – and that space would have also often have been into Celine and William Burroughs – is absolutely right. And there’s a double play with that aesthetic content: on the one hand it’s expressly understood as neurotic projection and madness, but that understanding of the idiosyncracy of the neurosis or psychosis is then immediately forgotten and the audience imagines they’re plugged in to the id of the world; they want to have it both ways – they’re in contact with an artistic soul who isn’t lost in the inauthentic babble of The They – unique and weird and atypical – but they’re also mainlining the Real, seeing the truth of everyone and everything, which is The Atrocity Exhibition or whatever – like Zizek appropriating and distorting Laibach’s project, fascism is the hidden truth of reality, we need to bring it out into the open and endorse it in order to be properly critical.

    I read Cornel West’s book on the pragmatists a few months back – found it very valuable – but it weirdly hinges everything off of Emerson, as if Emerson is even a pragmatist, and as if he has anything to do with the left projects that West is advocating. It makes longish sections of the book seem really forced. And I can see how that would fit into or come out of a branding of right figures left within the pomo intellectual US milieu West’s engaging with, at that time…

  7. duncan Says:

    Your Qlipoth remarks on Lynch are basically definitive, btw, I think. It’s stuff I’d appreciate seeing published more ‘formally’, these observations should have a bigger place in the discussion of Lynch’s work.

  8. duncan Says:

    I notice from the WordPress stats page that this comment thread is being discussed here. Probably not worth addressing this, but just quickly:

    No, you don’t have to stop liking Burroughs. I like Burroughs just fine. But the guy’s a creepy nut. (Hopefully this isn’t too contentious a claim.) Further, he has a vision of the contaminatory replusiveness of life that is not (as the poster incorrectly suggests that I believe) intrinsically fascist, but that is often associated with fascism, alongside various other attitudes and stances. Other stances that are generally associated with fascism, without in themselves committing you to fascism, include: opposition to democracy; racism; belief in the decline of the West; belief in the need for revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society. You can hold each of these attitudes individually without being a fascist; but if they start stacking up, you’re in ‘walks like a duck; quacks like a duck’ territory. The fear and loathing of contaminatorily repulsive life may be an under-recognised item on this list of fascist attributes; but it’s affectively quite an important one.

    In response to this – while I’m not claiming Burroughs is himself a fascist (his nuttiness is a bit more idiosyncratic than that, I think), it’s actually not very controversial to see Lovecraft and Celine as promoting fascism. See Lovecraft’s positive comments on Hitler (scroll down this page to see a relevant extract from S. T. Joshi’s biography), and Celine’s noted anti-semitism and Holocaust denialism. If you don’t find content that resonates with fascism in Lovecraft’s work, I think you’re not reading it very attentively. Again – this doesn’t stop you enjoying Lovecraft (though I don’t really get the appeal, myself; Burroughs can at least write). Neither does Tolkein’s racism and sexism stops you from enjoying ‘Lord of the Rings’, etc. etc. But it’s good to be aware of the social and political content of the works you enjoy. And if you find yourself advocating for the wisdom of these authors’ visions of the world, you should probably think twice about the nature of their works’ appeal to you.

    I don’t think Pynchon belongs in this category at all, btw – none of the work of his I’ve read seems to me to exhibit this sensibility.

    As a note to self – I really must get round to reading Theweleit. (I should also probably return to my habit of not checking the WordPress stats page.)

  9. duncan Says:

    Also, I simply don’t understand how people square their apparent conviction that fascism is an all-but-non-existent force in contemporary politics, criticism of which is laughably behind the times, with the fact that the National Front got nearly 18% of the votes in the last French election – a share of the vote large enough to have gotten plenty of parties into coalition government elsewhere in the world. (The UK LibDems got about 23% of the vote in 2010, and are now in coalition government. In Australia the National Party has never gotten as high as 18% in its history, and there have been three National Party Prime Ministers. (Only briefly, but still…))

  10. lecolonelchabert Says:

    The most overtly hitlerian version of his rputine yet….

    “Breivik was right in his choice of target”

    and even a little swipe at those christ killers.

  11. duncan Says:

    I don’t see what you’re objecting too – surely it’s just an extended version of this particularly cogent piece?

  12. lecolonelchabert Says:

    I thought they would needthe figleaf of or rather shadow of figleaf hologram of “a vile logic” to say hes not saying “breivik was right” to kill the socialists. But perhaps they are there already. Looking at the US now one is a little breathless at the lurch into full blown despotism with so much resurgent neobioligistic race politics.

    But we usaians have a real force of resistance to this which runs a gamut from radleft like rosa clemente to centre lib like racialicious. The uk has lost alana lentin and now theres almost nothing…gary younge all alone in press sarah ahmed all alone in academy and richard seymour smart but half hearted and inconsistent in social media. They have reopened the most insane closed questions…should “we” (they) tolerate or exterminate us? Should women have shoes? Are women more “animally” than men?

  13. ktismatics Says:

    Did you see Jared Diamond’s NYT op-ed response to Romney’s supposed “gaffe” commending the cultural superiority of Jewish Israelis to Palestinians? Diamond writes:

    “Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work.”

  14. duncan Says:

    ktismatics – what’s your intent in quoting Diamond?

    Molly – did you ever listen to Z’s Birkbeck ‘masterclass’? I could only stomach the first in the series: but it included such highlights as a discussion of Kafka’s Josephine the Singer, or, The Mouse Folk which (as it happens, just by chance) digresses into a discussion of how Kafka’s story demonstrates that the word ‘Volk’ is an innocent word undeserving of opprobrium. Then, moving on, a discussion of Alvin Toffler’s ‘Third Wave’, which is (despite its ideological condemnation – by Toffler himself, funnily enough) a model of a revolutionary community. Then we’re on to Wagner and so on and so on.

  15. ktismatics Says:

    You mean because it’s not about Zizek? I thought it was relevant to Zizek’s assertion of Western cultural superiority and that you might want to see it. Diamond seems to be protecting Romney from charges of racism against the Palestinians by asserting that “reward for hard work” is the real cultural distinction. I suspect he doesn’t mean that the slaveowners and the colonial rulers paid Dominican workers better than they paid the Haitian workers, or that the US rewarded Duarte’s hard work more generously than Duvalier’s. Clearly Diamond means that the Dominican leaders were more receptive to the Western export of capitalism than were their Haitian counterparts. Le Colonel knows way more about the Haiti-Dominican political economic history than I do, but to me Diamond’s piece reads like an effort to apply an academic sheen to Romney’s racist message.

    Curiously, when thinking about the Palestinian gaffe I switched in my head the name Romney to Reagan. It seemed like the sort of supposedly off-the-cuff remark The Great Communicator would have made. Maybe Romney is trying to tone down his corporate image to reach beyond his core constituency by striking a Reaganesque chord: he’s not always PC, but you can tell he’s speaking from the heart etc.

    Wait: were you wondering if I was endorsing Diamond’s view? No I wasn’t.

  16. lecolonelchabert Says:

    “Breivik was right in his choice if target.” Liberalism infected by jews is too weak to protect european civilzation from the intruding others…

    I havent listened to the masterclass but the twp days in kosovo where he is concerned with the dilemna if the warriors who have to gas some women and children…how will they do it? Himmler has a “wonderful answer”… and the kosovo tv where he recimmends ethnic cleansing and grearer albania and “Breathing room” are openly hitlerian.

  17. lecolonelchabert Says:

    Zizek the superstar ethical philosipher in the country perpetrating crimes if staggering barbarity and sadism and cupidity…falluja new orleans abu ghraib this hospital in afghanistan organ tragfick prisoner torture unto death human medical experiments on the poor bu waving some flimsy disavowal..or event just a hint of one in case of a need for alibi.

  18. duncan Says:

    God yeah I saw those hospital photos online yesterday – horrific.

    Ktismatics – I agree with your analysis of Romney’s ‘gaffe(s)’ which of course are no such thing. His campaign is pitched as asserting US greatness in contrast to Obama’s cosmopolitan diplomacy; it’d be a major tactical error if he wasn’t appallingly offensive on his international tour. And yeah, Diamond tells cultural supremacist narratives – I remember the Savage Minds blog went after him, back in the day – and of course there was that whole New Yorker piece fiasco.

    chabert, I watched that interview you linked to but still not the talk with the Himmler stuff. Still, in this city I decide who is left, and Zizek isn’t – what more do I need?

  19. Odradek Says:

    Um, hi. Thanks for responding to my concerns about fascism in regards to Burroughs. Your statements were very interesting and I’ll have to think about them. Thank you for being very polite in response to something written on what is, admittedly, a silly internet forum.

    I can certainly see that Burroughs was a crazy weirdo if a talented one. And I’m certainly not going to defend the honor of Lovecraft, who,I understand, once wrote a story in which the horrific realization at the end is that the protagonist’s grandmother was a black woman. While I think some readers of Lovecraft just wanna get a look at the weird creatures like a little kid exploring a tide pool in wonder. I have no trouble believing that at least some readers of Lovecraft who jive on his hatred for life. Look up his intellectual grandson, Thomas Ligotti sometime. I’ve seen Ligotti fans on the internet who believe in “race realism” and are holocaust revisionists and at least one outright Hitler apologist. I’m not an expert on fascism in the least, but I’ve noticed enough of a correlation between a pessimistic revulsion for life and fascist tendencies to be somewhat suspicious.

    Thanks again for being so polite. I keep forgetting that wordpress blogs track referrals. Last time this happened I ended up having to argue with this guy so this is a welcome change.

  20. Eurislamist Says:

    [no thanks – DL]

  21. duncan Says:

    I’ve got a pretty loose approach to comment moderation here – but I’m going to delete any and everything along the lines of Eurislamist’s odious comment above. Eurislamist – you are not welcome here.

    Odradek – thanks, glad the discussion gave some food for thought.

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