Last night, I watched a recent lecture by Slavoj Zizek to the University of Zurich (which you can watch for yourself here) entitled “In Defense of Eurocentrism”. While I was very disheartened by the title, a recent review of Zizek’s latest book Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels inspired me to watch the talk anyway, and I’m glad I did. Zizek’s usual ping-pong speaking style illuminated some of the more interesting topics that his book seems to be about, and it finally gave me some clarity on a Zizek mystery I’d been pondering for the better part of a decade.
I was incredibly eager for Slavoj to return to form. I enjoyed much of his work through my high school years, (what I could understand of it, anyway) on the topics of neo-Marxism, ideology and the language of cinema. As my college career began, (and with it my first formal steps toward a philosophical and theoretical education) however, Zizek’s takes grew hotter and worse, especially with respect to the migrant crisis, and I began to distance myself from him, in favor of more of his intersectional Continental peers. While I can’t say that he’s solved all of my qualms with his latest work, he has raised some exciting new points that are worthy of discussion.
Bureaucratic, Mega-Action Socialism
The marquee attraction of Zizek’s new thoughts is his solution. Many leftists do the work of positive philosophy, proposing new solutions for how to overcome capitalism, structure society, etc. But Zizek has been critique-oriented for a remarkably long career, making his name by “asking the right questions,” as many put it. He’s gone on record multiple times saying that the revolutions 20th century happened much too quickly, and that our current job as leftists is thinking of what comes next.
Well, it seems that Zizek thinks he knows, and the answer is bureaucracy. Zizek has an interesting critique of small direct democracies, and that is that the world now is simply too complicated and too dependent on large forces that need to run in the background of society (power, water, and so on) to allow for this. We would spend our days simply voting on minor points of policy. He paraphrases the Manifesto by saying true freedom is being able to do what you want, not the micromanagement of policy, unless that is what you want. This is backed up empirically to some degree in Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge when they talk about employee health insurance. When faced with a large number of small decisions, people find it difficult to either care or make the right decision. Similarly, Zizek’s first wife Renata Salecl’s work primarily concerns the tyranny of choice, and how too many options is exhausting to most people.
Zizek’s bureaucratic socialism hardline is mainly in service of what he calls mega-action. These are transnational actions that must be addressed in order to make life livable and non-oppressive. The most notable mega-action he mentioned is climate change. That will only be solved through a coalition that is basically unthinkable today. This mega-action seems to be from the Marxist framework, where the original mega-action would have been the revolution, but Zizek doesn’t think this is ever coming in a “workers of the world unite” sort of way.
The most interesting thing on this bureaucracy point is that this is the only point on which he calls himself a communist anymore. In the lecture he disavows Leninism in almost its entirety. Here he makes one of his worst moves in this argument, as well, sweeping Stalinism’s problems under the rug of bad bureaucracy. Here is where the unfortunate title of the lecture comes into play. Zizek thinks that for all of the bad Europe does and has done, the welfare state was one thing they got right, and it is the thing that we should carry forward with us. This message could be delivered more clearly in the outset of his lecture, but Zizek loves to confound and infuriate.
Besides, the idea that a white man talking about eurocentrism positively might be a bad thing is, if not lost on him, of little consequence to him. This is what led me away from Zizek in the first place, and still has him at arm’s length.
Slavoj Zizek was born and raised in what is now Slovenia during the dissolution of the Yugoslav nation. During this time, the various groups of white Slavic men were in constant conflict with each other. Specifically, the Croats in Bosnia were the victims of an ethnic cleansing. It goes without saying that this is horrible, and should not be treated lightly, but it has forever colored the way Zizek views the world. He believes that the Yugoslav dissolution was a microcosm for race, and as such takes a lot of liberties with his treatment of the subject in non-Yugoslavian contexts.
The problem is, of course, that Zizek doesn’t understand the fundamental difference between regional ethnic differences, and a technology of race that is centuries old and is one of the most powerful forces of oppression to ever exist. This is why he frames all races as rivals rather than a hierarchy, which is how the technology was originally devised, or as an in group-out group. This is interesting, as he is willing to do this for the global north, but not along racial lines. In the lecture, he trots out a classic Zizek story about Native Americans who insist on being called Indians as a monument to white ignorance. While I’m sure these people exist, I have serious doubts they are the norm.
The points that Zizek does make about race that have some salience are about minority group’s right to evil. Zizek thinks (wrongly) that the worst form of racism is the noble savage patronizing that denies oppressed groups the agency of responsibility for their negative actions and atrocities. I think this is a wonderful point, and something to take note of, but I believe he overstates it. This argument is akin to his work about charity and the poor from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. I just don’t believe the message applies here. He also makes an interesting point about stories about positive Syrian refugees in the news. The unspoken predicate is, as opposed to what? These stories about assimilation successes are asinine at best, and incredibly harmful at worst.
This is the first place that Zizek interacts with Derrida, though he never says his name in the lecture. The Muslim world is the only one that is not either a democracy or something that calls itself one. It is the globalist other, and its boogeyman as a result, as Derrida points out in Rogues. Zizek has been very conservative about the migrant crisis, because his belief is that true tolerance is leaving other cultures alone. His ideal world is one, not of segregation, but a mutual acknowledgement and ignorance of the other. I use ignorance here to mean ignoring, but also to mean lack of knowledge. This is another point I disagree with Zizek on to some degree, but the idea that if we can’t even know ourselves, we cannot hope to understand another culture is one that deeply resonates with me.
I think Zizek falls a little short in practicality here. He addresses this towards the end of the lecture when he talks about Derridean modernism, (something I will get to later) where he believes we all need to be let into the in-group of the welfare state, but once there, our axes of identity will and should separate us into groups that will happily ignore each other. I think that this ignores the idea that people will inevitably mix, and that this can sometimes be advantageous. Take for example, Punjab men and Mexican women in the 1800s. The men who immigrated to Mexico had political rights as men, but no ability to buy land, because they were not Mexican. The Mexican women had the opposite problem; they could own land, but as women had no access to political power. Together they were able to find access to full political rights. I suppose in Zizek’s world to come, that is not a problem, but I find his world to come a little unrealistic and reflective of his personal misanthropy.
Derridean Autoimmunity & Nazis
Zizek is definitely a student of Jacques Derrida. Though he touts the work of Lacan and Hegel as his areas of expertise, there has always been a Derridean in Slavoj. It started mostly formalistically; both men use a helter-skelter writing style to illuminate corners of a point, before the argument coalesces in the minds of the audience. Lately, however, Zizek is starting to show some influence in his content as well.
When Zizek outlines the limits of direct democracy, he talks about one of the problems being counting who can vote. Zizek talks about the idea of who is allowed to propose votes for what. He proffers the example of voting on allowing refugees to enter a country. Here, he sides with Angela Merkel’s unilateral decision to allow the million refugees in (For all of the grief I’ve given Zizek on his position, it’s one that I disagree with for many details and his Eurocentric inclinations, but Zizek does have a global perspective, for the most part, and a leftist view). He believes that democracy undoes itself in the details. If any and all things are up for referendum, then democracy can either tie itself up in red tape deciding details, or to take things one Derridean step further, kill itself.
I wanted to make it this whole article without mentioning Hitler, but here we are. He was voted into office. To use a Zizekian technique, if not an example, Star Wars: Episode III. Chancellor Palpatine does not overthrow the Senate, he gets them to elect him into power. We see this again with our current president. Democracy does have limitations, but this line between absolute democracy and absolute despotism is one that nations of the present, and the bureaucracy to come, must walk.
For my final point from the lecture, I really want to revel in what scant details we did get for Zizek’s mega-action bureaucracy. As is par for the course by now, I don’t love everything he has to say, but I love that he said it. First, Zizek is fascinated with beliefs that no one believes. What he means by this is the lies that we tell for social conventions. For example, if I ask you how you are, you know to respond fine, because I’m not actually asking you. If you responded honestly, many would be caught off guard. Zizek thinks that recognition of these rituals is ideology in a very quotidian form, and something we must gain control (or at least awareness) of before we can move forward to that world to come.
Another, more concrete and controversial move is his downplay of intersectional politics moving into the new world. He thinks they need to take a backseat to maintaining the bureaucracy. What matters first is we all get enough, not who we are, just yet. That will come. I disagree with this for a number of reasons, most based again on practicality. One size does not fit all. I know Zizek talks about water and power, but what happens when we need to universalize much more personal matters. I am sensitive to the Sextonian neoliberalism argument that says, basically, personalization gives an undue responsibility to the individual to maintain their own happiness, despite market forces and oppression, but sometimes different people require different solutions, and I didn’t hear a lot about that in the lecture.
Zizek does hit on something I found maybe most telling of his worldview, and most relevant to this blog. He hit on these axes of intersection as modernist. In order to have these things that you are, there must be a you to be. Zizek traces this back to the Cartesian cogito, (“I think, therefore I am.”) and while he isn’t clear about how or even if transcending modernism is what we should do, I think it is on his mind, and will hopefully be elaborated on in Incontinence of the Void.
While I didn’t agree with everything he said, it was great to see Zizek back in a way I hadn’t in years. His Living Dangerously years were not my favorite, and now I think he’s done the thinking he preaches about so often and come up with some conclusions. I don’t know if they’ll all be right, in fact I doubt it, but it is amazing to hear from a thinker of his caliber firing on all cylinders again. I’ll definitely be picking up his book, (Out September 29th) and after the months it will take me to parse it fully, I hope to return with more thoughts.
[A Brief Postscript: Zizek’s planning bureaucracy as a Eurocentric value may be misplaced. This collectivization is has as much to do with Eastern culture as much as western in philosophy if not in policy. I think in yet another way, his Eurocentrism may be misplaced]