Monday, January 03, 2011

Moving On from Zizek (or not)


I agree with those who say we should move on from Zizek.  And I would have nothing more to say about this debate, if people would stop defending Zizek on utterly spurious grounds.  However, I have had my ear nipped by a number of people who want to challenge my recent criticisms of Zizek, and the sheer irrationality of the defences offered is jaw-dropping.  On Twitter, for example, @khephir argued that Zizek was not attempting to vilify gypsies, but to “immanentize” them.  Asked if the specific claims about gypsies were correct, @khephir replied that “looking for truth in argumentation” is “silly”.  The claims about gypsies being thieves and murderers are “rhetorical”, not “critical or exhaustive”, and anyway “we’re all thieves and murderers”.  If you’re not laughing, you need to pinch yourself.  There’s others, but I’ll spare you.

More seriously, though in my opinion not much more seriously, the blogger ‘Sebastian Wright’ has engaged in a critique of my overall criticisms of Zizek, which he attempts to read symptomatically in light of the SWP’s politics of anti-racism, with which Sebastian has differences.  He alleges that after I started to criticise Zizek when he made what I thought was an appalling argument about the ‘Danish cartoons’ bullshit (sorry, ‘controversy’), I have “operated via a single strategy: take Žižek’s reflections on a subject, from whatever angle they might be, and simply shout them down with charges of racism: a kind of rhetorical ‘nuclear option’.”

Hot crackers, I take exception to that.  I don’t go around baselessly accusing superstar philosophers of racism.  Where I have accused Zizek of engaging in racism, I have dealt with specific examples, providing details and argument.  In this specific instance, I simply ask: are Zizek’s claims about the gypsies, and specifically the Strojan family, true? Is he merely stating a well-known truth, something which the politically correct brigade is trying to suppress, or is he fabricating, lying egregiously? The answer is that it’s the latter.  I find no evidence that the Strojan family are car thieves, and they didn’t murder anyone.  It is true that locals blamed the Strojan family for a number of thefts, but it’s also true that they acknowledge when pressed that the Strojans have been scapegoated on this issue. So, what Zizek said wasn’t true and, pardon me, he had no good grounds for claiming it to be true. Did Sebastian bother to check this before reflexively leaping to Zizek’s defence? No sign of it in this post.

Next question: if it wasn’t true, then why would he say it? The context is that he’s denying, or at least putting in serious doubt, the idea that the pogrom against the Strojan family was racist, and that the mob itself was racist. He puts this charge in scare quotes. He’s trying to explain the terrible burden of living with a gypsy family nearby, in order to give a real, material pretext for the violence. I do not say that he cheered on the violence. I was quite specific about this.  He championed the mob and its ‘legitimate grievances’ – a familiar technique of right-wing tabloids and shock-jock commentators.  He’s acting as an advocate for the poor, ordinary guy whose son comes home beaten up by gypsies, and who lashes out in grief. So his fabrications – and they are fabrications – are an act of apologia.

Third question: can such allegations be separated from the racist discourses about gypsies that are current in Europe, and particularly in Slovenia where this pogrom took place? These discourses have long depict gypsies as anti-social thieves and killers.  Such was a key component of the ideological basis of the Nazis’ extermination programme. These discourses scapegoat gypsies for real social problems – there is theft and murder and anti-social behaviour as a matter of course in all capitalist societies. They Other the gypsies, making them appear as an alien intrusion in an otherwise cohesive, integrative society.  In Slovenia, there are over ninety gypsy settlements.  Gypsies have long sought legal normalization, an end to segregation in schools, an end to de facto segregation in access to property, infrastructure, running water, and that sort of thing. The discourses which dehumanise them as anti-social, a burden, thieves and killers, aside from just happening to rely on anecdotes which – where they can be checked – prove to be untrue, blame gypsies for this appalling state of affairs, and validate their racial oppression. Zizek’s specific claims, aside from being untrue, and hitched to an unjustified apologia for a racist mob, are inseparable from these wider discourses from which they were undoubtedly culled.

It is so important to get the facts right about this, as the consequences could not be graver.  The demonisation of gypsies is liable to get someone killed – how’s that for a rhetorical nuclear option?  In light of this, to refer coyly to “real antagonisms” just isn’t good enough.


I am also, as part of this wider critique, misrepresented over the Danish bullshit: “Seymour simply asserts that cartoons lampooning Muhammed are racist, ergo any attempt to think the reaction to them as anything more than justified rage against an obviously evil act of injustice is also racist.”  Those of you who spent time on the blog during that disgusting fiasco will remember that I was prepared to be quite boring on the subject.  I went into some considerable length and detail, through a number of posts, explaining why these specific cartoons (not just any old cartoons lampooning Muhammad) were racist.

The cartoons collectively drew on a series of essentialising tropes about Islam that have nothing to do with the facts of Islam, but which have everything to do with the demonisation of Islam. These held that Islam is, from is inception, a doctrine of violence, fanaticism, and the oppression of women. It so happens that this isn’t true.  The cartoon about the virgins for suicide martyrs, for example, reproduces with a commonplace idea held about Muslims and their beliefs among Europeans and Americans.  But it is not based on anything in the Quran or the Prophetic Tradition. These are tropes which became important to colonial pedagogy because of the encounter with Muslim resistance to empire, in Indian in 1857, in Egypt in 1882, in Sudan in 1898, in Iraq in 1920, and so on.  In each of these cases, resistance had to be explained in terms that did not reference the injustice of imperial predation. It was therefore explained in terms of, among other things, Mahometan fanaticism and a propensity toward violence.

“Imperial feminism” in the same era depicted colonised male subjects as being inherently more barbaric in their treatment of women.  In practise this conviction, which was propagated by the likes of colonial administrator John Stuart Mill and perpetuated by conservative, bourgeois feminists, weakened the struggle against female oppression in Europe. It formed part of the advocacy for empire, as in Mill’s famous arguments, after the 1857 uprising, for the East India Company’s progressive social role in India.  So, the treatment of Muslim males as being inherently more barbaric in their treatment of women has a pedigree, and its function today is not dissimilar to that of its original formulation.

The soliciting and repeated publication of these cartoons, the refusal to acknowledge diplomacy for months before there was a single protest, and the desperate attempts by newspapers to provoke a reaction by talking them up before there was a reaction, is obviously not separable from the context of the ‘war on terror’ and the civilizational narratives that have moralised and rationalised its prosecution. So, again, I charge racism on very specific grounds that the implied depiction of the subject is false, Othering, and is part of the means by which their oppression is validated and perpetuated. Sebastian may disagree with this.  But no one, certainly none of Zizek’s defenders, has been willing to engage with the argument on its own level.

Sebastian also alleges that my position on the Danish cartoons logically entails that the “reaction to [the cartoons]” doesn’t deserve real anatomisation.  Any attempt to read into them more than a reaction to injustice is written off as racist, he avers.  This is not so.  I am more than happy to countenance an analysis of protests against Danish cartoons which suggests that they are more than a protest against an injustice. Arguably, other dynamics included the willingness of US client-states to allow people to vent steam over the issue.  But it is unreasonable, putting it no more strongly than that, to write off any injustice without proper consideration of the issues. Further, as I argued, Zizek is not plainly equipped to carry out such an anatomy. An important part of his argument was that Muslims were targeting Denmark despite its being a haven of tolerance, despites its efforts to be open to all races, creeds and cultures. But those who follow these sorts of things knew that this was false. Denmark was never the epitome of tolerance, and certainly neverparticularly tolerant of its Muslim minority.  And unfortunately, when Zizek comes to explaining what the protests are “really” about, he falls back on a crude, essentialist analysis of Islam and its texts, which bears the same relation to Islam and its believers as Raphael Patai’s work does to the ‘Arab mind’.


Lastly, the symptomatic critique holds that the SWP is trying to uphold a liberal anti-racism, in its efforts to defend oppressed communities in the UK, and that my position on Zizek’s outbursts on the gypsies amounts to nothing more than a defensive  This ‘liberalism’ is chiefly expressed in, whisper it, “permanent united fronts with Tories, right-wing Muslim groups, and so on”.  This works by conflating a tactic, the united front, with an ideology.  It also conflates specific work on combatting fascism, with wider anti-racist work and output.  The SWP’s position on fighting fascism is simply that it will work with whoever is opposed to fascism.  In Unite Against Fascism (UAF), this unites a part of the Labour Left, some of the trade union bureaucracy, mainstream Muslim groups, Jewish anti-racist organisations, the SWP and independents.  We are open about our politics within UAF, but we don’t expect everyone else in that organisation to share our perspective.  The Tories’ only involvement to date involved David Cameron signing the UAF’s founding declaration.  I make no apologies for the fact that Cameron felt that he had to associate himself with this campaign.  As for the SWP’s position on the short-comings of ‘multiculturalism’ and liberal anti-racism, this has been outlined in the journal, in the newspaper, and at public events.  My view, stated plainly, has been that the neo-Powellite revival of racism has operated partially occupying some of the ideological terrain mapped out by official multiculturalism.  Our analysis of racism is unapologetically marxist, our response based on that marxist analysis.  But if it’s true that in my criticisms of Zizek I am basically upholding the SWP’s politics of anti-racism, then those politics would seem to be validated here. They certainly have a clear political advantage over any position which perpetuates malicious, racist falsehoods, in a context in which the perpetuation of those falsehoods is actually lethal.