Thursday, March 16, 2006

Zizek goes to Atheist Heaven.

Regarding this spat about Zizek between Le Colonel Chabert and Alain et al at Long Sunday.

Perhaps it's transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he's writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say "well, he didn't mean that". But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek's latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric - well, actually, Christian supremacist - platitudes about Islam and secularism. It's interesting that in doing so, he actually explicates an argument that less 'provocative' commentators would disavow: that atheism is a legacy belonging to Europe, that it is a specifically Christian ethos, and that it is the only thing that can save us from violence that allegedly derives from religion (not ours, theirs). To put it bluntly: we Europeans, we atheists, we Christians in drag, are the only alternative to the hellish fundamentalist Mohammedans - and they should be grateful for us. This is contemptuously balanced by a glancing reference to Christian fundamentalism in the standard cursory fashion of Islamophobes. He's a downright liar too: he says "What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post." Chabert points out that about 1 billion people have just slipped out of his purview, but even if we accept the reduction of the world to Islam vs the West, are we supposed to forget that Rhazes was denouncing religion as the cause of social injustice in Persia while such a claim would have meant death if made public in Europe at the same time? Or that Emperor Akbar was espousing the "path of reason" while Bruno was being burned at the stake? It's impossible that Zizek doesn't know this. So, why is it essential to claim atheism for Europe?

A couple of years back, Bat discussed what he referred to as Zizek's residual attachment to liberalism: the least that one can say is that it's looking a lot less residual these days. Of course, he has always taken a feeble liberal humanitarian line on Israel-Palestine, just as he did on Kosovo. But if anything, the residue is from Stalinism. For instance, take this piece on the EU Constitutional Treaty vote, where he asserts that the Third World "cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American dream", as if it isn't in fact doing so, and therefore the choice is between Europe as the new Second World and America as the First World, one of which the Third World will pursue like a starved puppy. He loves this line from Yeats: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity", suggesting that it is "a good description of today’s split between anemic liberals and impassionate fundamentalists": the 'fundamentalists' in this case are those who protested about the Muhammad Cartoons, while the 'best' are the anemic liberals. In his NYT op-ed, Zizek specifically espouses an unproblematised liberalism: "the only political force that does not reduce [Muslims] to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the 'godless' atheist liberals". Deep-fried bullshit from start to finish: witness the hysteria of liberals over the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill and faith schools for Muslims (Christians and Jews can have these, but these rough savages?). Western liberals can't stop reducing Muslims to second class citizens, when they are not busy wishing for them to be reduced to pink mist.

And here's another inversion of reality: "The ultimate irony, of course, is that the ire of Muslim crowds turned against Europe which staunch anti-islamists like Oriana Falacci perceive as way too tolerant towards Islam, already capitulating to its pressure; and, in Europe, against Denmark, part of the Scandinavian model of tolerance. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure will be on you". Really? It’s 'as if' that, is it? The ungrateful, selfish bastards; we give them an inch, they think they’re entitled to have their countries! The 'ire' of these crowds was turned against some pretty obvious racist caricatures produced in a country where Islamophobia is rife, the far right are riding high in the polls and Muslims are an embattled minority. In the longer article, Zizek briefly acknowledges the falsity of the free speech and tolerance argument in respect of the caricatures, pointing out Denmark's lack of tolerance, the ban on Nazi holocaust denial etc etc. In the NYT article, which addresses an altogether different kind of audience, it doesn't even appear. Fallaci, Zizek's "staunch anti-islamist" is actually a bilious racist these days, particularly against the "Sons of Allah". Zizek scampers on, whingeing about the liberal “propensity to self-blaming”, a mytheme directly lifted from the lexicon of the hard right and the racists, and now a favourite weapon of liberals against other liberals (mainly liberals who support imperialism against liberals who oppose it). And then, discussing the heightened sectarian violence in Iraq, the author of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? says "totalitarianism": "Is not the lesson of all totalitarianisms that the fight against the external enemy sooner or later always turns into an inner split and the fight against the inner enemy". Well, no: a) because the 'totalitarianism' thesis is a preposterous intellectual fraud, and b) because the fight against an external enemy is already a fight against the inner enemy: the US could not govern Iraq even to the extent that it is able to were it not for collaborators from within, and this has always been the case. There is an analysis of the 9/11 attacks that is alarmingly similar to that of the Bush administration: they attacked New York and Washington out of "hatred simple and pure", which derives from a "logic of envy and resentment": they hate us, and they're just jealous, cuz we're rich n free n they're not.

Back to the 'cartoons':

The Muslim crowds did not react to caricatures as such; they reacted to the complex figure/image of the “West” that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures. Those who proposed the term “Occidentalism” as the counterpart to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” were up to a point right: what we get in Muslim countries is a certain ideological image of the West which distorts Western reality no less (although in a different way) than the Orientalist image of the Orient. What exploded in violence was a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes (Western imperialism, godless materialism and hedonism, the suffering of Palestinians, etc.etc.) that became attached to Danish caricatures, which is why the hatred expanded from caricatures to Denmark as a country, to Scandinavian countries, to Europe, to the West – it was as if all these humiliations and frustrations got condensed in the caricatures. And, again, one should bear in mind that this condensation is a fact of language, of constructing and imposing a certain symbolic field.

The seductive Lacanian packaging positions the "ire" at the Muhammad cartoons (which Zizek still doesn't acknowledge as racist, only blasphemous, only disrespectful within the confines of religion) as a reaction to the West as perceived through a distorting phantasmatic screen, "a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes": this would be more impressive if Zizek did not reveal his own "complex cobweb" in the process. It is interesting to see what the figure of the "Muslim crowd" which continually reappears in Zizek’s analysis stands for. Perhaps a clue is offered when he writes: "when we are dealing with the scene of a furious crowd, attacking and burning buildings and cars, lynching people, etc., we should never forget the placards they are carrying, the words sustaining and justifying their acts". Precisely - the "scene"! Because, let’s be honest here, most Muslims – while they had every right to be angry about the depictions – were not on the streets. This was a totemic issue not for Muslims, but precisely for the liberals and their racist counterparts who fulminated about free speech. Jyllands-Posten specifically designed its campaign to convoke some sort of reaction, and those who repeatedly republished them over four months with not a squeak of violence from anyone did the same. In so doing, they reaffirmed their self-image as liberals while asserting the essential incompatibility of their liberalism with Islam: it is exactly the politically correct racism that Zizek once noticed in the rhetorical strategies of Pim Fortuyn. Similarly, as Chabert points out, it is only a few short steps in Zizek's metonymy from "Muslim crowd" to "terrorist", with "fundamentalist" the intermediate link in the chain.

Is Zizek being the contrarian here? Playing it for laughs? Substituting lucidity for ludicity? I don't think so - it seems to emerge from his political commitment to liberalism, which is becoming more obvious, and his philosophical commitment to a reinvention of Pauline Christianity. I think the former is partially a reflection of his experience of opposing the Stalinist regime, later supporting Slovenia's secession from Yugoslavia, and his contribution to the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party which then became the long-term government of Slovenia. (By his own account the latter helped stop the recrudescence of extreme nationalism and racism, but he tends to vaccilate between defending secession these days and stating that he in fact opposed it, at least on 'theoretical' grounds.)

And look, since this has been talked about: it is not a particular problem for me that Zizek flatters his audiences, manipulates their desire in order to achieve acquiescence and what have you. The problem is to what end he puts his courtiers' skills: if it is in order to repoliticise cultural studies, to break with a certain kind of facile "postmodernism", to get people to read Lenin, to oppose US imperialism and so on, wonderful; if it is to indulge in narcissistic liberal preening (which is actually so narcissistic as to revel in its own capacity for limited self-critique), reflate Eurocentrism and slip ugly, lazy, racist nonsense past the bullshit-detectors of his readers, then it is nothing short of pernicious.