An important moment in the highly emotional debate over President Trump’s controversial comments about white supremacist terrorism went unnoticed in the mainstream media: On CNN’s Don Lemon’s show, African-American Professor Michael Eric Dyson took umbrage at the false equivalence President Trump was drawing between revolutionary era slavery of the Founding Fathers and Confederate slavery. Trump’s outrageous remarks, Dyson opined, ignored how the treasonous Lee and Jackson, in their intense hatred for America, wanted to secede from the union, while Jefferson and Washington established the democratic bulwark against slavery itself. In Bill Maher’s words, “Slavery for Washington was a bug, but for Lee it was a feature.”
Dyson’s courageous anti-anti-Eurocentrism, which he unfortunately dropped in later interviews, cannot be simply dismissed as a hypocritical relativization of slavery. Rather, it constitutes a genuine and sober realization that the horrors of Eurocentrism notwithstanding, the universal ideals of the Enlightenment laid down the democratic and egalitarian foundations that eventually undermined the institution of slavery itself.
This anti-anti-Eurocentric position comes at no better time: The current debates about American identity, white supremacy, and the so-called “post-racial” multicultural ideology are unfolding in the context of a clear shift in the Trump administration’s policies from the neoliberal ideological consensus to the Asian playbook of authoritarian capitalism. The intensification of the contradictions of the global capitalist system in the U.S. is thus articulated in the form of a decoupling of the neoliberal market from the structures of democratic governance and the Enlightenment egalitarian values underpinning it. Moreover, it is repackaged in a populist, nativist rhetoric that obfuscates the increasing polarization of wealth (class struggle) in the U.S. in the name of cultural tolerance and heritage. The appeal to white guilt in this context has exacerbated the alienation of the white underclass and drove them further apart from the racialized underclass in the US.
Invoking anti-anti-Eurocentrism in the struggle for racial justice today, however, means that it is no longer possible to seamlessly ground identity politics in the uncritical celebration of roots, cultural traditions and precolonial prelapsarian utopias. The way in which identities are appropriated and mobilized in the struggle sustain and reproduce the abstract (neutral) universal framework (i.e., multiculturalism and post-racial ideology) within which these identities are posited.
Liberal and leftist commentators thus need to draw the ultimate radical conclusion from this anti-anti-Eurocentric position: The struggle for racial justice must be grounded in a dialectical materialist understanding of “the gap” between the particular and the universal which, according to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, not only destabilizes identity from within, but also serves as the foundation for a true universality.1 Žižek’s crucial point here is that identities should be taken up on the promise of actualizing this immanent universal dimension that was opened up precisely through the brutal history of genocide, slavery, colonialism, internment, etc.
Briefly, Žižek maintains that every identity is split from within and is coincident with a gap that exists immanently at its core. That is, this gap or destabilizing excess at the core of every identity serves as the common denominator or universal dimension, the transcultural link that cuts across all identities and cultures. Universality, in this sense, cannot be obtained by ascending higher up to any abstract notion of common humanity or family of man, but by going deeper down into the gaps and inconsistencies at the core of the individual and culture. However, identities, which are misrecognized as self-enclosed and substantial, are prone to repressing this universal dimension.
Ironically, it was the historical process of European capitalist expansion that generated the context in which it was possible to clear the space for releasing that universal dimension at the core of identities.2 Unfortunately, anti-Eurocentric intellectuals and subsequent generations of leftist and progressive activists tragically missed this opportunity on behalf of their categorical struggle against Eurocentrism and its Western legacy, Enlightenment ideals and all. In a dialectical materialist fashion, the anti-Eurocentric response should have been not only to disclose the gap between the Enlightenment ideals and the particular (nationalist) content that colonial European powers tried to fill it in with, but also to demonstrate that the oppressed and exploited are better positioned in the midst of struggle and at the edges of human survival to embody the radical consequences of the Enlightenment ideals that the Europeans themselves failed to fulfill.
The slave army in the Haitian revolution, for one, serves as a primary example for this dialectical materialist understanding of universality. The former Haitian slaves rebelled against the limits of particular identities and opted, instead, to actualize the potential of their immanent universality. They thus redefined their identities by reinventing the European tradition and “appropriating key elements of the ‘white’ egalitarian-emancipatory tradition, … obliterating the implicit qualifications which have de facto excluded Blacks from the egalitarian space.”3
Nothing could have stunned and offended Leclerc’s soldiers more than hearing the slave army sing La Marseillais. This was not a gesture of assimilation to the hegemonic French colonial ideology, as Žižek correctly points out, but a resounding declaration that former Haitian slaves “stand for the innermost consequences of [the French] revolutionary ideology, the very consequences [the French] were not able to assume.”4 In this precise sense, they were more French than the French themselves, since they not only demystified the gaps and inconsistencies at the core of French identity, but more importantly, they showed that they were the true “enfants de la patri,” the ones who could fulfill its radical promise.
Malcolm X’s critique of white supremacy and racial injustice based on this immanent potential of universality offers a cautionary tale for identity politics advocates. Malcolm X moved in the right direction by substituting the nostalgia for precolonial African roots for an X, an “unknown new (lack of) identity” that was opened up through the traumatic history of slavery.5 It was no coincidence that Malcolm X chose an English alphabetical cipher, just like the Marseillais for the Haitian slave army, to embody this universal register—it offered African Americans the freedom to reinvent Black identity and demonstrate that it is “more universal than the professed universality of whites.”
Malcolm X understood that what white supremacists wanted to oppress and repress was not African cultural roots, but the same universal ideals that were embodied in his iconic X. Colonial history, according to Žižek, shows that colonialists were more eager about reviving precolonial cultural traditions that were brutally oppressive and unjust. However, Žižek misses the point when he claims that Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam re-enacted this radical universality through the “universality of Islam.” To the contrary, Malcolm X betrayed the potential for fulfilling the promises of this universality, by elevating a particular religious identity to the level of the universal. Malcolm X fell back on a constituent identity immanent to universal framework itself, and thus failed to contest and subvert the system.
The point that needs to be emphasized here is that Westerners (Euro-Americans) have no monopoly over universality and Enlightenment ideals. They will always fail to fill it with a proper particular nationalistic (French or British or American) content. Similarly, advocates of identity politics assume that the particular content of any identity can easily fill in the empty space of universality. However, to paraphrase Žižek, the human subject will never succeed either in using any particular content to fill in this universality or in bringing the particular content into harmonious relations with the universal, because there is a fundamental contradiction between its “singular subjective viewpoint,” through which it perceives and colors reality, and its status as another object in that reality.6
Nonetheless, Žižek does not make it clear as to why it is always the ethical duty of the racialized oppressed and colonized subject to make the first step towards subjective destitution, subverting “authentic” tradition and replacing it with the new universal identity. Indeed, there is no account in his analysis for the reason that the ethical duty of showing the colonizer their failure to live up to those Enlightenment ideals must always begin with the colonized and oppressed.
These problems came up recently in a talk that Žižek gave at the Lack II Conference in Colorado Springs. Žižek ended his keynote address with a clip from the denouement of Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 American neo-Western film, Wind River, which explores the brutal rape and homicide of an 18 year old American Indian woman, Natalie Hanson, on the reservation by a group of security guards at a nearby oil drilling rig. In the final moments of the film, the wildlife tracker Corey Lambert, a White settler who is married into the reservation and who had lost his daughter three years earlier in mysterious circumstances, visits the grieving American Indian father, Martin Hanson.
Martin is sitting outside in the garden with an improvised “death face,” painted with blue and white colors. In response to Corey’s query how he would know what that was, Martin states that “he just made it up; there was no one left to teach me.” To underscore the fact that this is not part of any authentic ancient American Indian tradition, Martin tells Corey that he will need to pick up Chips form the police station “as soon as I wash this shit off my face.” Martin then looks at Corey and invites him to sit there with him, to which Corey replies, he was not going anywhere. The men sit with their back to the camera, sharing a brief moment of grief and mourning.
The structural homology between the example of the Haitian Revolution and the film’s miraculous intersubjective space lies in the miracle of this event which has been facilitated only by the willingness of the colonized indigenous man to voluntarily assume the position of the excremental subject, by associating his improvised death mask with excrementality. Both cases seem to converge on the instrumentalization of the colonized minorities in multicultural ideology for the benefit and pleasure of the privileged and dominant groups. They are always expected not only to teach the dominant groups about their suffering and oppression, but also to remind them of their ethical duty to the Enlightenment ideals.
Moreover, the film reframes the traumatic intrusion of the history of the violent sexual abuse of indigenous women within the conventions of the traditional settler-colonial narrative (the film is actually told from the white settler’s perspective—the tracker and the FBI agent) and the homosocial bonds of the mythical frontier rationality into a miraculous event of solidarity, in which both men share the same intersubjective space of mourning and grieving. Consequently, Žižek’s analysis here risks depoliticizing the radical potential of subjective destitution, by evacuating it from the power asymmetry and involuntary identification between the colonizer and the colonized that characterize it, and representing both in the language of moral equivalency.
Žižek’s crucial point, though, remains that the struggle for universal emancipation (the class struggle) must be made “through or at the site of a thwarted particularity.”7 However, in the specific context of the settler-colonial politics, this insight has to be extended in both directions and applied equally to all revolutionary subjects in that particular situation. It cannot be expected that the racialized or colonized revolutionary subject be always the one to bear the consequences of this thwarted particularity, to have the signs of the failure of their particular identity to coincide with the culture and society to which they belong and their rise to the status of the universal be inscribed on their bodies. In other words, the realization that genuine revolutionary subjects should stand for this “thwarted particularity” must be distributed more democratically among revolutionary subjects wherever they are. Only then can the work for genuine solidarity and the struggle around anti-anti-Eurocentric ideals begin, in order to transform the nature of social relations under global capitalism.
- Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso 2012, p. 361.
- Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso 2014, p. 132-133.
- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as a Farce, London: Verso 2009, p.120.
- Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 132.
- Ibid, pp. 356-357.
- Ibid, p. 362.