In the appendix to an article recently published on The Philosophical Salon website, Slavoj Žižek offers a response to the accusations of racism, repetition, reactionaryism and charlatanism that I made against him in an article published last month in the journal Current Affairs.
Arguably, what is most noteworthy about Žižek’s response is not what it says, but what it omits. In particular, Žižek offers no defense of – or apology for – his racist suggestion that pedophilia is “a key constituent of the very identity” of “Pakistani Muslim youth”; he offers no defense of his preposterous preference for “the worst of Stalinism [over] the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state”; he provides no rationalization of his ridiculous claim that all forms of political Islam ultimately reduce to fascism or Wahhabi-Salafism; he offers no justification for his outrageous suggestion of the acceptability of Western state terrorism and the permissibility of “violat[ing] elementary moral norms”; he supplies no further buttressing of his flimsily-defended assertion of why he believes “right-wing chaos” is a necessary precursor to progressive political change; he offers no attempt to render consistent his belief that US President Donald Trump will provide such “right-wing chaos” with his view that Trump is also a “pretty ordinary centrist liberal”[i]; he provides no explanation for why he advocated abstention in the Macron vs Le Pen 2017 French Presidential election, given his (Žižek’s) professed belief that Le Pen is an “anti-immigrant populist” who represents “the principal threat to Europe”; he makes no admission of, or apology for, the fact that his 2018 book Like a Thief in Broad Daylight was deceptively marketed as a book about technology’s impact on human affairs, when in fact the book was largely about sex; he makes no attempt to clarify what he means by “dialectical materialism”, or to render the dozen or so (often amusingly) distinct definitions he has previously offered of the term consistent; he offers no defense or retraction of his ridiculous assertion that the world (according to quantum mechanics) is a “positively charged void, and that particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed”; and, finally – and perhaps somewhat forgivably – he offers no attempt to explain what on earth (e.g.) animal sex has to do with Hegelian interpretations of quantum mechanics.
Instead, what Žižek does offer is the following:
- A grotesque comparison between articles critical of his philosophical and political positions and the Nazi Holocaust. (According to Žižek, such articles “aim to achieve a kind of ‘final solution’ of my ‘problem’ – my disappearance from public space”.)
- The fatuous assertion that my charges of racism and reactionaryism in the article ultimately boil down to the claim that Žižek supports Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “the clash of civilizations,” and not that (e.g.) he has called young Pakistani Muslims pedophiles.
- The absurd claim that he does not, in fact, “endorse” Huntington’s thesis, despite the fact that in his own response he quotes himself as definitively endorsing it (“we are definitely in the midst of the clash of civilizations”).
- A ludicrous argument to the effect that he doesn’t endorse Huntington’s thesis because he also endorses the view that “there are clashes within each civilization: in the Christian space, it is the US and Western Europe against Russia; in the Muslim space it is Sunnis against Shias”, and moreover that his “basic strategy is to shift the accent from the clash between civilizations to the clashes within each civilization” – an argument which is not only obviously invalid (Žižek fails to realize the logical possibility of simultaneously endorsing both theses of inter- and intra-civilizational clashes), but is also prima facie insane (suggesting as it does that Žižek desires an escalation of hostilities between the world’s two major nuclear-armed power blocs, as well as an increase in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia).
- The false claim that in his work he has merely “[drawn] attention to the (for me, at least) obvious fact that there are important differences in the predominant stance towards sex and authority between Western European and Muslim communities,” when in fact what he has done (repeatedly) is to make intentionally inflammatory, absurdly reductionist, and occasionally even racist assertions about the latter community.
- A fatuous argument to the effect that, because Žižek has called for the “build[ing of] bridges between [the West’s] and [the Muslim world’s] working class,” he can’t be a reactionary racist – an argument which is again not only invalid (it effectively amounts to the claim that Žižek can’t be a racist because he occasionally says some non-racist things), but is also extremely difficult to render consistent with some of his other professed views (in particular, how is a group consisting almost entirely of “boring idiots” supposed to “build bridges” with gay-hating freedom-hating women-subordinating fascistic pedophiles, who are also, presumably, boring idiots to boot?)
- The citation of several polls and articles (one of which Žižek plagiarizes[ii] in his response), published over a period of several years, pertaining to Muslim attitudes towards a number of different issues, and which, Žižek claims, “documents” the “specificity of Muslim cultural identity”. Upon inspection, however, the cited polls and articles do anything but document such specificity: rather, they suggest that Muslims around the world have (as one might have expected) extremely wide-ranging – and, in some instances, rapidly changing – attitudes toward a variety of different issues and practices. Thus, for instance, according to the Channel 4/Gallup polls cited by Žižek, Muslims in Britain went from “zero tolerance” of homosexuality in 2009 to only 52% wanting the practice outlawed in 2016: a figure which, while admittedly high, would still appear to be significantly better than attitudes towards homosexuals found in many majority-Christian and (ostensibly) majority non-religious countries. (The Žižek-cited 2013 Pew Research Center Poll claims that in Russia 74% of people believe that “society should not accept homosexuality”; in Uganda the figure is 96%, in South Africa 61%, in El Salvador 62%, in China 57%, and in South Korea 59%.) Interestingly, the figure of 52% is also somewhat comparable to the views held by Polish people, of whom 46% think that “society should not accept homosexuality”. (Serious question: Is there thus a “clash of civilizations” between Poles and non-Muslim Brits?) Finally, and most amusingly, one of the articles that Žižek himself cites – and, indeed, plagiarizes from – would appear to disagree that there is in fact a “specific” Islamic view when it comes to homosexuality: “It is difficult to define the “Islamic position” on homosexuality, as a monolithic phenomenon, simply because Islam is a very diverse faith group with some 1.6 billion followers on six continents.”
- The curt dismissal of the charge of repetition with the claim that “in the last decade, I [Žižek] struggle with the same problem, as many philosophers do” – a statement which, I’m sure, will draw near-unanimous assent from philosophers around the world who have repeatedly struggled with the intractable problem of how not to repeat themselves verbatim, over and over again, in one and the same book.
- An equally curt dismissal as “nonsense” the (obvious) questions that I raise immediately after quoting the “elementary formula” of Žižek’s 2013 book Less Than Nothing, without offering any explanation as to why what I say is in fact nonsensical.
In short, the initial charges of racism, reactionaryism, repetition, and overall charlatanism still stand. Indeed, if anything they would appear to have worsened: not only is it true that Žižek is still very much a racist, reactionary, repetitive charlatan, one who even has the nerve to plagiarize in his response to an article that explicitly accuses him of (self-)plagiarism, but he is also clearly an unrepentant one at that.
What, then, are the lessons to be drawn from this? There are, I think, several, but I will limit myself to mentioning just two here.
First, my article on Žižek should not, I believe, be construed as yet another example of the left’s proclivity for internecine conflict, or as further evidence of progressives’ inability to forge a united front against greater societal threats. The reason for this is simple: there is nothing even vaguely “leftist” about a meandering, racist, reactionary, repetitive, clickbait-inducing charlatan who has consistently said things that are politically, morally and philosophically indefensible. That is, Žižek is not, and never has been, a “progressive”: on the contrary, he is an unapologetic fraud whose personal mannerisms, ability to feign profundity, and apparent competence in recounting obscene “jokes” have catapulted him into the public and academic spotlight, a position he has since maintained (in part) by shamefully attacking some of Western society’s most marginalized communities and, more generally, by regularly provoking outrage and inane “controversy” on a consistently ignominious basis.
Secondly, and more speculatively, I believe that Žižek should not be understood as the cause, but rather only as a symptom, of a much deeper, and much more pernicious, global malaise. In particular, there appears to me to be a fundamental sickness across much of our contemporary intellectual culture, a sickness which, I suspect, has many sources, but which very likely includes our (over-)use of social media, our inadequate public education systems, and ever-increasing global social and economic inequality and concomitant social, economic and even intellectual anxiety. Thus, treating only the Žižekian symptoms of this deeper illness is, I think, at best insufficient: we must also understand and, to the extent that we are able, systematically address its root causes, lest similar symptoms reappear – perhaps in even more pernicious guises – in the future.
As far as I got
I began to read the above response, and the second paragraph is as far as I got:
“Arguably, what is most noteworthy about Žižek’s response is not what it says, but what it omits. In particular, Žižek offers no defense of – or apology for – his racist suggestion that pedophilia is “a key constituent of the very identity” of “Pakistani Muslim youth”; he offers no defense of his preposterous preference for “the worst of Stalinism [over] the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state”; he provides no rationalization of his ridiculous claim that all forms of political Islam ultimately reduce to fascism or Wahhabi-Salafism; he offers no justification for his outrageous suggestion of the acceptability of Western state terrorism and the permissibility of “violat[ing] elementary moral norms”…”
At this point, I stopped reading it. Why? Because all four accusations are based on a ridiculous misreading. As for my “racist suggestion that pedophilia is ‘a key constituent of the very identity” of “Pakistani Muslim youth’”, any reader can verify that I never claim this. I compare the Rotherham events (Pakistani gangs systematically raping hundreds of girls from poor white neighborhoods) with pedophiliac scandals that haunt the Catholic church, just to make the point that, in both cases, we are dealing with a kind of publicly disavowed subculture that is a constituent part of a cultural identity (which means that, in this respect, our Western societies are no different from Middle Eastern Muslim societies). Never do I imply that pedophilia is part of the identity of Pakistani Muslim youth: the Rotherham events have nothing to do with pedophilia…
As for my “preposterous preference for ‘the worst of Stalinism [over] the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state’”, one should just read the next sentence in my text: “better the worse Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy. Of course, the moment one compares the positive content of the two, the Welfare State capitalist democracy is incomparably better.” And, if I may add a personal remark, in late 1980s, I myself was personally engaged in undermining the Yugoslav Socialist order. So, it is abundantly clear I do not in any way advocate Stalinism.
As for my “ridiculous claim that all forms of political Islam ultimately reduce to fascism or Wahhabi-Salafism”, here is a passage from my Courage of Hopelessness which clearly indicates the emancipatory potential implicit in Islam: ““With Islam, it is no longer possible to ground a community in the mode of Totem and Taboo, through the murder of the father and the ensuing guilt bringing brothers together – thence Islam’s unexpected actuality. This problem is in the very heart of the (in)famous umma, the Muslim “community of believers”; it accounts for the overlapping of the religious and the political (the community should be grounded directly in God’s word), as well as for the fact that Islam is “at its best” when it grounds the formation of a community “out of nowhere,” in the genealogical desert, as the egalitarian revolutionary fraternity – no wonder Islam succeeds when young men find themselves deprived of traditional family safety network. This properly political dimension survives in Shia communities much more than in the Sunni majority.”
And, finally, there is my “outrageous suggestion of the acceptability of Western state terrorism and the permissibility of ‘violat[ing] elementary moral norms’.” Here is the entire passage where I explain what I am aiming at: “In other words, one should absolutely reject the very topic of the “ethical suspension of the theologico-political,” the idea that we should be ready to constrain our political (or religious-political) engagement when it leads us to violate elementary moral norms, when it makes us commit mass killings and cause other forms of suffering. So what’s wrong with the reasoning which follows the line of “when you are obsessed with a political (or religious) vision, don’t just work to enforce it onto reality, take a step back and try to see how it will affect others, how it will disturb their lives – there are certain basic moral rules (don’t torture, don’t use killing as an instrument, etc.) that are above any political engagement”? The point is not that we should turn the suspension around and claim that a radical (theologico-)political engagement justifies violations of basic moral norms; the point is rather that our critique of a (theologico-) political vision which justifies mass killings etc. should be immanent – it is not enough to reject such a vision on behalf of external moral scruples, there must be something wrong with this vision as such, in its own (theologico-)political terms. Stalinism is not to be rejected because it was immoral and murderous, but because it failed on its own terms, because it betrayed its own premises.”
Is it not clear from these lines that I am not advocating the violation of elementary moral norms or committing mass killings and causing other forms of suffering? Of course, we should not be doing such things! What I am saying is that, in condemning political practices that do this, it is not enough to refer to abstract moral standards. One should undermine these practices through an immanent analysis. Say, in the case of Stalinism, one should show how Stalinist horror is grounded on the insufficiency and inconsistency of the entire Stalinist vision. Plus – and I am quite outspoken on this – one should demonstrate how these inconsistencies are not just Stalinist “deviations,” but how the space for them is opened up in the ambiguities and blanks of the Marxist classics themselves, including Marx himself.
Should I go on? No, at this point I’ve lost interest in losing time with the Response, in which my critic tears fragments out of context in order to impute them a meaning that is the opposite of the one clearly intended. If there are readers who find pleasures in following my critic’s ramblings, let them do it at their own expense and risk.
[i] Perhaps, though, I have simply failed to grasp the central lesson imparted by Žižek in the main body of the article:
We find this ourselves (sic) in a universe where inconsistencies are not a sign of our epistemological confusion, of the fact that we missed ‘the thing itself’ (which by definition cannot be inconsistent), but, on the contrary, a sign that we touched the real.
Translation: if you contradict yourself, it’s not actually a sign that you’re confused, stupid, or just plain wrong. On the contrary, it’s a sign that you’re probably right!
[ii] Compare the link to a “2009 Gallup poll” that Žižek cites in his response (which, in fact, is not a link to a 2009 Gallup poll, but is actually a link to an article which, among several other things, discusses a 2009 Gallup poll):
In 2009, a Gallup survey revealed negative attitudes towards homosexuality among European Muslims. In France, 35% of Muslims viewed homosexuality as “morally acceptable” (versus 78% of the general public). In Germany, 19% of Muslims viewed it as morally acceptable (versus 68% of the general public). In the UK, none of the Muslim respondents viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable (versus 58% of the general public who did).
Compare this to what Žižek wrote in his response:
Plus one should mention a Gallup survey from 2009 which revealed negative attitudes towards homosexuality among European Muslims: in France, 35% of Muslims viewed homosexuality as “morally acceptable” (versus 78% of the general public); in Germany, 19% of Muslims viewed it as morally acceptable (versus 68% of the general public); in the UK, none of the Muslim respondents viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable (versus 58% of the general public who did).