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Tag: zizek

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

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It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

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In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

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Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

On the encounter, or how I missed a flight because of Slavoj Žižek

I have experienced the full horror of an encounter with that which exists beyond the wall of language and beyond the limits of our comprehension, and it happened in the departure lounge of London Stansted airport, in a seating area between the Wetherspoons pub and a branch of Pret A Manger.

I was there to visit some friends in Edinburgh, and I was flying because it’s cheaper to get to Scotland by hurtling through the sky in a tin can full of burning kerosene than it is to take a train. I don’t like airports. I don’t think anyone does, apart from planespotters, executive bankers, Boris Johnson, and other such psychopaths. It’s not even the queuing, or the brusquely voyeuristic security measures, or the abolition of the indoor smoking areas; it’s the fact that airports seem to be the focal points of a very peculiar sort of regimented insanity. Why do the tannoy announcers in airports seem to be so ashamed of their humanity that they mimic the blank tone and halting cadence of a robotic voice? Why do most of the books sold at airports seem to concern a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people in an airport? In 2009 Heathrow chose as a writer-in-residence for its newly opened terminal that blithering clunkhead Alain de Botton. He wrote a book about the experience. Sample sentence: In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. I don’t think anyone capable of producing such artless imagery should be allowed near a rural bus stop, let alone an international air transit hub. But in a way it makes sense: de Botton’s banal quietism, vaguely inquisitive but ultimately more concerned with homilies than critique, is precisely the kind of attitude that our infernal masters in the airport system want to promote.

In Stansted, I was busy inadvertently scalding my tongue on coffee and trying to pummel my mind into a book by de Botton’s less platitudinous namesake, Alain Badiou. I’d managed to find a less crowded area, but there was still plenty of commotion. Kids gnawed at the edges of their seats. Clashing strains of cheery pop blared from various exciting retail spaces. Harassed-looking commuters played an endless series of computerised bloops through their iPads as they crushed candies or angered birds or did whatever it is we’re now required to do to stop us committing suicide whenever we have five minutes to ourselves. Badiou was trying to tell me about the universality of the truth-event, but I’d had three hours’ sleep the previous night and it was pretty hard to listen. I felt a faint shadow fall over me in the diffuse airport light, and looked up. Standing in front of me, meeting my gaze with his, was the Slovenian philosopher, critic, author of over seventy books, and ‘intellectual rock star,’ Slavoj Žižek. He was pale and haggard, his nose pulsing, his legs trembling. I might have imagined this, but he appeared to be wearing an illustrated Žižek alphabet t-shirt: A is for the Absolute, B is for the Big Other, C is for cocaine, and so on, and so on. And he was looking at me with pure, undisguised terror.

I’d come across Žižek before. In a talk at the Royal Festival Hall he’d accused the entire audience – myself included – of being ideologically incoherent for failing to properly understand the ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ scene in Cabaret. In these pages I’ve variously mocked his beard, parodied his writing and speaking style, and pointed to the dearth of censure for his outbursts of antiziganism. His publishers follow me on Twitter. This was different. I wasn’t facing the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West,’ or even the author of over seventy books. With his sad grey eyes and his meline snuffling Slavoj Žižek looked like nothing so much as some reclusive woodland creature, something small and hunted and incredibly fragile. He was in shock. He’d been in London to promote his new film; he’d been surrounded by journalists and interviewers and, worst of all, his fans, who he famously can’t stand. Finally, he was in Stansted airport, protected by a wall of duty-free perfume and ruffled copies of the Daily Mail; he thought he was safe. No such luck. He was just looking for somewhere to sit before his flight, but then he saw me. He saw what I was reading. In a blurb, Žižek has said of Badiou that ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us.’ I would know who he was. I would want to talk to him, or take a photo, or have him sign something; it would be unendurable. He had to leave before I noticed him. Too late. I looked at him and he looked at me. Or maybe the other way round: for a Lacanian, the Gaze is never your gaze, it’s the gaze of the Other, the anxious feeling that the object of our glance is looking back at us. In any case, he grunted and shuffled away as quickly as he could.

I was in shock too. My plans for that morning were to drink some coffee, try to read a book, and catch my flight to Edinburgh. I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into a miniature staring contest with Slavoj Žižek. Nobody had warned me that this was about to happen. Now I know how I’ll behave in a moment of crisis: as the sniper fire whooshes past my ears or the avalanche slowly descends or the inferno blazes around me I’ll just sit there, mute and stunned, an idiot smirk hovering on my lips. By the time I regained my senses he was gone. Quickly I hurried after him. I had to get something: a photo, an autograph, a blurb for my first novel, a response to my critique of his contribution to David Lynch scholarship, something to prove our encounter had actually happened. He had his role, and I had mine. He would flee, and I would hunt him.

I never did find him. By the time gave up my hunt my flight’s final call was imminent. In my panic I followed the wrong signs and found myself trapped on a slow-moving automated transit to a distant outpost of the terminal. When I eventually reached my gate the staff told me that the plane’s doors had been closed less than two minutes ago and that I couldn’t be allowed to board. Pleading had little effect. I had missed my flight, the next one wasn’t for seven hours, and it was all Slavoj Žižek’s fault.

This is what’s meant by an encounter. Most of the time when we see people we don’t really look at them, and for good reason. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be confronted with countless gazes and subjectivities, an infinity of infinities of experience. You can’t approach all these people as other subjects; you’d go mad, end up as a street preacher or a serial killer. It’s much safer for everyone if you consider them as vaguely mobile obstacles. If you see someone you find particularly attractive or particularly objectionable you might go into a brief flailing panic, your eyes darting around them, your neck craning over to watch them walking away, but that’s over in a second. Sometimes, though, there’s an encounter; a point where you approach someone else in a manner that is entirely beyond the structures of signification and at the same time full of an incredible significance. We all leave a certain amount of turbulence in our wake. The encounter can result in grand leaps in human knowledge, or the ruin of cities, or me being stuck in Stansted airport for seven hours. For Badiou, though, the encounter is the fundamental basis of love. As a good Maoist, he rejects the banal cod-spiritualist view in which love is seen as a process by which two people become one: the essence of love is the properly dialectical formation of a Two. In an encounter – in a real encounter – a monadic subjectivity finds itself opened up to other people, to numerativity, and through this it gains access to the infinity of experience.

I’m not so sure about this. Badiou’s maths is probably better than mine, but I’ve yet to see a series of integers ever actually ending in infinity. Žižek is less positive about the whole thing; for him the paradigmatic form of the encounter is the encounter with the Real. He writes: ‘When do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language’, in the Real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, a facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.

My encounter with Slavoj Žižek was an encounter of this kind. I looked at him and he looked at me; we saw each other beyond the wall of language. The sensation that accompanied this encounter wasn’t love: it was mutual horror. For a brief second before I set off to chase him down, the linguistic structure of my subjectivity was shattered. I saw myself from the outside. It was something like Kristeva’s formulation of abjection – the awareness of a subject as something other than a subject, the feeling you get when confronted with human shit or a corpse. The traumatic sense of my own finitude.

The encounter is unpleasant, but this doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In a sense, Badiou is right: it opens up a pathway to the infinity of experience, not through numerativity but through a Deleuzian operation of minority and multiplicity. Deleuze claims that we never encounter another person directly. We encounter the Gaze, and this wordless gaze emanates from the Real where there is no lack and no insufficiency. It’s upsetting, but it’s a duty: in the end, it’s our duty towards our own deaths.

In the end, I caught the next flight. Edinburgh was very nice.

Exclusive extract: The Lacan Conundrum, by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno went on sale yesterday and has already careered straight to the top of the bestseller charts. Naturally, I was a little jealous. However, unlike the throngs of snobbishly unpublished authors who take it upon themselves to parody Brown’s works, I decided it would be far more productive to try to learn from someone so clearly a master of his craft. That said, I needed an edge on my competitors, and just reading Inferno wouldn’t cut it. I knew his next novel, scheduled for publication in 2015, had already been written. So at midnight last night I parachuted stealthily out of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk plane with a Garmin G1000 Primary Flight Display flying at 13,000 feet over the small Westphalian city of Gütersloh – home to Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA, parent company of Doubleday, the publisher of Dan Brown’s novels. Landing on the roof of the squat office building, I quickly incapacitated the guards, who were armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine guns, for reasons best known to themselves. Gingerly, I entered the building through a ventilation duct. Eventually I found myself outside the room where Dan Brown’s next novel was being kept. What I found in there revolted me. The air stank of ordure and rotting bananas. The shit-speckled walls, the piss-sodden carpet, the flies, the rats. About a thousand primates sat there on ergonomic office chairs, chained to antique typewriters. The macaques and tamarins were visibly distressed, straining at their manacles, screeching helplessly, banging their heads against their desks. A few chimpanzees had resigned themselves with seeming good humour to their work; while one typed, another groomed its back. By the far wall, a sad-faced old orangutan slowly and arrhythmically pressed the ‘H’ key, over and over again, staring dejectedly at the reams of paper it had yet to fill. The baboons seemed to be in charge of the place, though. They were unshackled. As I entered they shrieked in unison, baring their yellow fangs. I grabbed a few sheets from the typewriter of the nearest gibbon and ran. As I left the building, pursued by the chilling ululations of the baboons, I briefly passed Bertelsmann’s Employee of the Week board. On every square was a picture of a baboon. And at the top, smiling benevolently down on them, was a photo of the Reinhard Mohn, the corporation’s legendary former CEO: a silverback gorilla, staring with a pipe in his mouth and the faint gleam of a deep unknowable wisdom in his round brown eyes.

The lines that follow are all that I could rescue from that room.

THE STORY SO FAR: Around the world, hundreds of men and women drop dead on the same day. The tall man Chad McRib, professor of Obscurantology at Hardton University, is accused of complicity in their deaths. Fleeing the French police through the streets of Paris, he finds himself catapulted into the ancient mysteries of the 20th Century, as it emerges that all of the victims had at one time or another been analysands of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. After Chad enlists the help of the beautiful European nuclear scientess Slavojina Zizek, it is discovered that Lacan had been highly radioactive. It was for this reason that he had gone against the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse in introducing shorter sessions: he knew that prolonged exposure could give his patients a lethal dose of radiation. But who had irradiated him, and why? Chad and Slavojina delve into the sewers of Paris with a stolen copy of Lacan’s notebooks to find the answer, but find themselves trapped in the terrifying Mirror Stage, and shadowed by mysterious gazing figures…

The tall brown-haired man walked into the room. The man was Chad McRib, who was tall. The attractive woman Slavojina Zizek clung to his arm. The whirr of a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) air-conditioning unit hung in the air, which was suffused with the hum of a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) air-conditioning unit.
“We’ll be safe here, Slavojina,” Chad said. “As we have checked into this hotel, the Hôtel Fièvre Gastrique on the Rue  Grossier, under false names, the Big brOthers will be unable to find us here, in this particular place.”
Slavojina reclined delightfully on the expensive bed. “Zhe question ish, what ish it we should we do now?” she purred, like a cat suddenly teleported to Planet Milk. “Theesh I claim: we musht carry out the sexual act, it ish our duty, in zhe Kantian senshe.” Her hand fluttered teasingly over her eyebrow and the bridge of her bulbous nose as she grunted sensuously.
“While it is true that we are now experiencing a high level of mutual attraction, especially when compared to our first meeting two days ago, during which you were somewhat wary of me, we have no time for that,” said Chad, who was high in stature and had brown hair. “Whoever those people are, they won’t stop looking for us until they have these écrits,” he continued cromulently. “Whatever the secret is, it must be hidden in this notebook,” he mouth-flappled.
The notebook was square and had yellowed over the years. Its cover was black with embossed gold lettering. The paper was made from pine woodpulp. 60% of the pulp that had gone into the notebook had come from a single pine tree. The tree had been planted in 1928 near the Spanish town of Rascafria. In 1941 a Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca adalberti) had nested in its branches like a zeppelin docking at the Empire State Building. The eagle was later shot by a hunter named José Mercader, who had a thick moustache and later fell into penury for unrelated reasons. None of its chicks survived. Chad McRib opened the notebook with his fingers, which were long and slim, much like his body, which was tall and slim. He read a few pages, like a crowded minivan plunging tragically off a cliff. I’ve got it, he thought. If the unconscious mind is itself a series of chains of signification, then literally everything has a hidden meaning and every single object is part of a vast paternal conspiracy. But what could be the purpose of it all? Suddenly, he knew.

~

He then told Slavojina what he had discovered, which was very unsettling and also exciting. “It is commonly said in the bar-rooms and crack dens of the world that Lacanian psychoanalysis is difficult,” the professor said, thrillingly. “Indeed, many of my students have told me that they find it difficult to read Lacan, because his words are difficult to understand and the order in which they are placed also makes them difficult to understand,” the noted academic who was on the run from the police said, in tones that made it sound very exciting. “However, what if the reason for this complexity is that Lacan’s works in fact carry a hidden message, explaining who had given him his continual doses of radiation? For instance, Lacan attempted to explain psychoanalytic concepts through mathematical formulae. The traditional interpretation is that he did so as a half-serious attempt to give his theories objective mathematical weight. But could it be something else?” The teaching-type person, who was very clever and also had brown hair, directed the woman’s attention to a diagram in the notebook. “Look at this,” he said. “Does thees not demonstrate precisely zhat in making a line acrosh zhe face of zhe Real, zhe act of represhentation ish itshelf monstrous, in a senshe deesgushting?” Slavojina giggled.
“Exactly,” said the man, who was called Chad McRib. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense. But what if we tried to solve it as if it were a perfectly ordinary triquadratic biequation?” He scribbled in the notebook with the furious zeal of an itinerant lobster, using a Pentel GraphGear 1000 PG1015 automatic pencil. “You get this.”
 “My God,” said Slavojina. “Pure ideology.”
“I think the whole book is a map” said the fêted head-think-brain-man. “It’s a set of directions. Where is the name of the Father written in Paris? Above the altar in Notre Dame. And what forms a phallus? The Eiffel Tower. Somewhere along the line between those two points an incredibly precious object is hidden, an object people have been seeking for centuries. That’s what the Big brOthers are after. Lacan’s notebook gives us the route to the objet petit a. The ultimate object of desire. The Holy Grail, Slavojina.’
“But zhees ish eempossible,” said Slavojina. “Zhe objet petit a ish unobtainable. Zhat ish zhe source of eets transcendence.”
The famous professor flipped through the square book. “What if I told you that I know exactly where it is?” the elegant variation pronounced.
“In zhe filum of Heetchcock, zhe gaze ish never a pure gaze, eet ish alwaysh accompanied by zhe threat of viyolence,” Slavojina gasped.
“You’re right. We haven’t a second to lose.”
As the tall man Chad McRib and the attractive woman Slavojina Zizek stepped out of the hotel onto the Rue Grossier, a dark bad figure of a bad man lurking in an alleyway watched as they hurried off towards the Seine. He cocked his SIG P226 pistol and began to follow them.

~

A short man burst into the boardroom of a superbly appointed office building in New York. “Sir,” he said, proffering a photo of Chad exiting the hotel. “McRib is back.”
Sitting alone in the room, which had excellent views over the river, wearing a sharp navy-blue three-piece suit, the Master-Signifier smiled in an evil way as would befit someone who is obviously the villain in this story. “All is going according to plan,” the Master-Signifier said. “Once McRib finds the objet petit a for us, no power on Earth can prevent us from crushing the schizoanalysts and achieving world domination.’

Will our heroes find the objet petit a? (no.) Does it even exist? (no.) What about the Big brOthers, do they exist? (no.) Will Chad uncover their plot before the radical schizoanalysts detonate a nuclear bomb over Vienna and wipe out the Freudian legacy? (no.) What unexpected twist awaits us before the novel’s end? (Slavojina is quite clearly a man.) To find out, you’ll just have to wait until 2015.

What is fascism?

In my last piece, I wrote that ‘microfascism has taken over the world.’ In that line I was adapting the Deleuzian use of the term: Deleuze draws a line between historical Fascism (of the type that came to power in Germany, Italy, Romania, etc) and microfascism: a field of destructive, authoritarian impulses that permeates capitalist society. In Capitalism and Schizophrenia microfascism is the result of a blocked line of flight, a molarisation of repressed desire; in my essay I was considering the possibility that microfascism could function molecularly as well as through molarity. A deviation, but one with its genealogy in the text: Deleuze and Guattari continually equate the repressive totalitarian with fascism. In doing so they’re broadly in line with much of the radical left: communism is presented as one side of a polarity, with the opposite being fascism. Fascism is abstracted from being a real historical ideological movement into a general principle, a kind of radical Evil.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Alan Johnson describes Slavoj Žižek as a ‘left-fascist.’ Clearly this is meant to be a criticism, and there’s certainly much to dislike about Žižek: his egregious antiziganism, his refusal to support genuine socialist movements in Latin America while singing the praises of Occupy Wall Street, his ‘ironic’ construction of a cult of personality. It’s not this, however, that riles up Alan Johnson. Instead, Žižek is criticised for ‘believ[ing] liberal civilisation is a nightmare from which only violent revolution can awake us,’ for his ‘contempt for the bourgeoisie,’ for advocating ‘unquestioning fidelity to a transcendent Cause’ as a cure for psychosocial ills. All this, Johnson informs us, means that Žižek has far more in common with interwar Fascism than with the far Left. Well, no. Critique of liberalism, revolutionary agitation, rejection of bourgeois values, and sublimation of the individual will within the revolutionary cause are all not only compatible with Communism, but essential to it. Johnson calls Žižek a fascist because it has become an epithet: he calls him a fascist for being a Communist. It’s idiotic, but even so, he touches on something important.

Every time the English Defence League tries to march its sorry band of hooligans past a mosque or a road with more than one halal butcher’s, leftist organisers drum up support against them with a single word: fascism. The EDL aren’t Fascists. Neither are the BNP. Neither is Marianne Le Pen. Neither is George W. Bush. Fascism is a Weltanschauung; like Communism, it is a complete and all-encompassing movement. The EDL doesn’t care about Nietzsche, or Hegel, or Giovanni Gentile, or Third Positionism. They’re racists, not Fascists. Racism proceeds from Fascism but is in no way essential to it: even the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference was riven by disagreements over whether Fascist societies could be multiethnic. To call the EDL fascists is to credit them with a level of theoretical and philosophical awareness that they don’t possess.

Well, so what? Fascism is universally reviled; if applying it to groups like the EDL bolsters opposition to them, why not do it? If transmuting fascism into a general principle allows us to easily identify our enemies, isn’t that harmless? Not really. For a start, conflating racism with fascism blinds us to the racism outside the ‘fascist’ fringe. If fascism is racism then non-fascism must be non-racist: the anti-fascist campaigns that relentlessly attack groups of the far right are much more forgiving of the everyday racism practiced by liberal-democratic governments, and tend to gloss over completely racism on the left (such as Žižek’s). ‘Fascism’ becomes an immense distraction: as Badiou points out, the dogmatic abhorrence with which nationalist parties are held only allows systemic racism to go unchallenged.

There’s also the potentiality for misdirection. It’s not just the Left that abhors fascism. When fascism is turned into a universal principle of Evil, it becomes a useful tool for imperialists and reactionaries. Witness the coining of the term ‘Islamofascist,’ used by neoconservatives – who were, let’s not forget, mostly ex-Trotskyites – to drum up support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fascism untied from its historical roots becomes a floating signifier, utterly meaningless.  You can use it on anything. The Fourth International referred to social democracy as ‘social fascism’ because of its class collaborationism; one could equally call an apple a ‘fascist orange’ for refusing to properly recognise its internal divisions. As Alan Johnson inadvertently demonstrates in his essay, anything can be fascist, but especially anything with transcendent political goals – in other words, any ideology opposed to hegemonic liberalism. Abstracting fascism plays directly into the hands of the reactionaries: the status quo is good, any revolutionary challenge to it is absolute Evil.

Most of all, though, the abstraction of fascism contradicts historical reality and allows us to ignore important historical lessons. What is fascism? Fascism is a deviation from socialism based on idealism instead of materialism and the principles of nationalism and class collaboration instead of internationalism and class struggle; it is an aestheticisation of socialism. The founding ideologues of Fascism weren’t diametrically opposed to socialism; they emerged from the same philosophical branch. Giovanni Gentile wasn’t only the greatest scholar of Hegel since Marx, he borrowed extensively from Marxian thought. Georges Sorel was an orthodox Marxist and a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution; his Reflections on Violence remains a useful Marxist text. It’s time to dispense with Trotsky’s old ‘materialist’ analysis of Fascism: despite its reactionary quality, Fascism (outside of Germany, at least) was never a rearguard action by the ruling classes to protect their interests. It was a chimerical mass movement, a branch of socialism that went hideously awry.

Foucault describes how madness is turned into a unified principle of pure chaos so that society does not have to see itself in the madness of individuals. In much the same way, by turning fascism into an abstracted opposite principle, the Left protects against having to see itself in historical Fascism. By painting fascism as pure reactionary ideology, we’re not forced to confront difficult questions about the teleological inevitability of socialism. By considering it as the violent essence of capitalism, we can ignore the fact that socialism and Fascism arise under the same material conditions. A while ago, I wrote that Leftists ought to be more critical of 20th century Communism than its most vociferous opponents, that we should be utterly ruthless, picking apart its slightest failings – while at the same time maintaining fidelity to it and recognising it as fundamentally ours. In Marxist practice, ruthless criticism is the highest honour. The same goes for Fascism: by recognising ourselves in it rather than considering it as a hideousness somehow inherent to humanity, we can learn the catastrophic consequences of bad theory and, hopefully, prevent them from happening again. And by decoupling Fascism from absolute Evil, we can even learn from Fascist thinkers. As Johnson notes, interwar Fascists made lucid and piercing critiques of liberal democracy and bourgeois ideology, and stirring calls to collective action in the name of the transcendent Cause. He seems to think that these points are invalidated by the fact that they were articulated by Fascists. Historical materialists, conscious of the extents of their ideological family tree, should know better. These things belong to radical egalitarianism: they are not the constituent parts of radical Evil, and we should not surrender them.

Slavoj Žižek answers a question on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

SLAVOJ: Yes. My god. This question, I claim, it is inevitable, but I had hoped that it would be inevitable in the manner of Derrida’s messiah which is always coming but never comes, not in the manner of the inevitability of socialism. I should begin, I think, by saying that I have not read this book. In my house in Ljubljana, I have a hundred copies of each of my own books, there is no room for anyone else’s. It is a field of pure madness, pure narcissism, in the Lacanian sense, of course; it is the perfect image that constitutes the Subject. I may as well have made every wall a mirror. This book, it starts on the Internet, no? People are reading more than ever before with this technology, it is disgusting, wholly degenerate. I think the only true literary figure of our times is Katie Price, you know this? The woman who has written more books than she has read. She forms the highest critique of literature – and I do not mean this in the liberal nostalgic way of the culture is declining, everything is becoming commercialised, and so on, and so on. No! What she does is very important, I claim, she reveals the truth that was always there, that reading books is a worthless activity. There is an excellent line in Nietzsche, he says: at the dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness! So I claim, the problem with this book is not that the author has not read enough, it is that she has read anything at all. My god. But this book, it is simulated sex, no? It is pure pornography. But that is not what is obscene about it; all literature is pornography, after all. No, what is obscene is the reaction. This is the difference between the modern and the postmodern: when that other pornographic book was published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was banned at once. This is good, very healthy indeed. Pornography that is not banned at once, you know, it is like coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, a proletarian movement without the Absolute, and so on, and so on. But this book, the Fifty Shades of Grey book, it is embraced openly, the women read it on public transport, and so on, and so on. It is the Other without Otherness, utterly obscene. In the liberal society, everything is permitted, every kind of sexuality; not only permitted, it is mandatory. The command everywhere is this: you must Enjoy! The truly radical act, this I claim, is to not enjoy. The revolutionary is the real hedonist of the twenty-first century because he puts Communism over his own jouissance. It is this which is unacceptable. I am reminded of an old Soviet joke: Marx, Engels and Lenin take turns buggering a peasant woman in a field. When they are done, Marx kisses her cheek, Engels kisses her mouth, and Lenin has been stealing the wheelbarrows. I claim: if you do not get this joke, you are a fascist.

I’m convinced that it would be relatively easy to programme a computer algorithm which, given sufficient input in the form of pop culture and political events, would be able to churn out fully formed Žižek books at the rate of three hundred a second. The man himself already lies deep within the Uncanny Valley: like Marxism and eschatonic Christianity, he exists only to prefigure his own redundancy.

Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.

A fever dream: on the eviction of Slavoj Žižek from the Celebrity Big Brother House

The scene: a raised platform, ringed with bright white lights, set before a surging mob, waving placards for pitchforks, bearing the political slogans of the post-ideological age, spitting and grimacing, desperate for vicarious jouissance, their toothy grins tinged with the threat of violence. On the platform: to the left, Davina McCall, professional objet petit a; to the right, Slavoj Zizek, the subject-supposed-to-know-what-a-subject-supposed-to-know-is. Between the pillars of light, grotesquely large pictures of Slavoj’s face – or what face there exists between bulbous nose and parasitically fungal beard. For a brief moment they both stare blankly forward – a cameraman gives a series of hand signals – suddenly they are animate, Davina cheering and throwing up her arms, Slavoj frantically tapping his nose and beard in a spasmodic fit.

DAVINA: Welcome back to Celebrity Big Brother, and welcome to Slavoj!

The crowd erupts in – not a cheer, exactly, but a noise, a mingling of yelling and clapping and hissing and roaring and stamping of feet, a riotous commotion.

SLAVOJ: Thank you very much, no, yes, it is an honour.

DAVINA: And it’s an awful shame, isn’t it, because you were so close, you were one of the last four left in the house.

SLAVOJ: Well, yes, I am not so much interested in the winning of the show, the accolades, the headlines, and so on, and so on – but the fantasy of being the last person in the house, to be alone in the house, with the cameras, with the constant presence of the Big Other, this I am interested in. It is a recurring theme in horror movies, no? You are alone in the house, but you are not alone, someone is there, someone is watching you – it is a perverse fantasy, I think. And very much Freudian, as well, in the sense of the unheimlich, of the home being a place of danger. So I am disappointed I did not win, yes, very much, indeed.

DAVINA: [unfazed] Let’s talk about some of the other housemates. There was a lot of tension, wasn’t there, between you and Chipmunk?

SLAVOJ: [with a startled snort] You say there was? I did not see any of this tension, entirely not, I felt he was an interesting man – maybe clinically, perhaps, you could say.

DAVINA: [to the crowd] Shall we show him the diary room tapes?

The crowd roars its assent. Fists are flung into the air in jubilatory schadenfreude: some miss and collide with another person, suddenly a hundred brawls are taking place, the crowd turns in on itself, here and there knives are produced and the sharp tang of blood mixes with the stink of sweat in the air. Only after the first few gunshots are heard do the security guards intervene: a phalanx of rottweiler-faced men in dayglo jackets forces its way towards where the violence is at its most intense – they are consumed by the crowd. Perhaps they are killed, perhaps they melt into its roil, it is impossible to say. A line of police cavalry charges. At first they make some progress: those at the edges of the crowd are swiftly truncheoned and detained, but soon the horses find themselves mired in the furious swarm, and in their anxiety they throw off their riders, the line is broken, the plan of attack evaporates. Some of the crowd attack the horses, some of the horses start fighting one another, gnawing chunks from each other’s necks. In the near distance, the low rumble of heavy artillery can be heard.

DAVINA: [exultant] Let’s show him the tapes!

CHIPMUNK: [onscreen] I just don’t get him man, like, what’s he done, why is he here? I ain’t never seen him on anything, like, nothing. And he’s some fucking wasteman, like, man ain’t had a single shower since the start of the show, swear down, he fucking stinks, doesn’t he? I can’t fucking sit next to him, or like even near him, you know what I’m saying? And he chats some breeze, innit. I’m saying, it’s not just his weird accent, and all the snorting and those little hand twitchy things he’s always doing, you know what I mean – he’s talking about sex the whole time: like, yeah, cool, but it’s all perversions, everything’s perverted, I can’t take a dump without it being some representation of my desires in the symbolic order or whatever – I’m like, are you kidding me? This guy built a career on that bullshit? It’s not even anything, really, it makes its own internal sense, kinda, but it’s entirely divorced from the actuality of human subjectivity and the actuality of the human condition, and that’s what the ultimate focus of philosophy needs to be, not all these masturbatory Lacanian abstractions. It bears no relation to how people actually function, it’s a poststructuralist psychoanalysist’s fantasy about how people actually function. So, nah. Me and Slavoj, I don’t see us being in the getalong gang in the Big Brother house, you know what I mean?

DAVINA: So, Slavoj, how does that make you feel?

SLAVOJ: Well, myself, I make it a point of never reading my critics, never reading my reviews. Or I will tell the publishers: put the bad reviews on the back of the book! My audience know who I am, they will read me anyway. But Chipmunk – he is ultimately an empiricist, he has a very British way of conceiving these things, this antipathy towards the abstraction, the Continentalism, and so on, and so on. In his music and his music videos, the focus – it is entirely on the immediacy of experience, no? So his criticism, it is still rooted in ideology, this I claim. The ideological disagreement, it does not translate into personal antagonisms. I am a good Hegelian, after all, such oppositions, they are necessary. But I should say, the proceduralism of intimacy in the diary room, it is exactly like Catholic confession, no, it is exactly the same. You do not confess to the priest, your confession is directed towards God, towards the Infinite Other, as in Levinas, and so on, and so on. You do not talk to Big Brother, you talk to the Big Other, to the audience at home, to the Holy Spirit. After I am evicted from this house, I am no longer a participant, I am an observing subject, an ordinary pervert, then it is acceptable to show me these tapes – it is a form of licensed voyeurism, is it not?

DAVINA: [nodding her head] One last question.

SLAVOJ: Please, please, go on.

Throughout this exchange Davina has been undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis: her cheeks grow fuller, her paunch expands, her tits shrink, her hair turns white and recedes. At first the faint shadow of a moustache falls on her upper lip, then stubbly hairs sprout from her chin. Soon she has a full beard, her eyebrows sit heavily on her brow, her camera-friendly coquettishness becomes a stern gaze, almost disdainful, which she now fixes on Slavoj. She is no longer Davina McCall: instead, Slavoj finds himself being scrutinised by the unmistakeable visage of Karl Marx – or perhaps Jehovah; depictions of the two are, after all,  very similar.

MARX: Do you not think that your participation in this televisual charade, your gleeful willingness to put your theorising at the services of capital, your unashamed prostitution, your jestering and japing, your fruitless contrarianism, your pop-psychoanalysis – do you not think that this not only casts disrepute on your status as a serious Marxist thinker, but also cheapens Marxism itself? Are you not turning revolutionary ideology into just another media gimmick?

The crowd, who are all orthodox historical materialists, nod sagely, in unison.

SLAVOJ: I know you. You said a man should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner. Well then – can I not play the jester in the morning, advertise for garment retailers in the afternoon, appear on reality TV in the evening, and still be a serious philosopher after dinner?

MARX: You forget that we are still living under capitalism.

SLAVOJ: But under capitalism, we must still live.

The crowd, racked by confusion, briefly organises itself into a series of non-hierarchial egalitarian communes, forms a workers’ state, undergoes Thermidor, becomes disillusioned. Defeated, they shuffle back to their allotted space in front of the platform.

DAVINA: [for it is her again: the beard has gone, the grin has returned] Well, Slavoj, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Celebrity Big Brother. Do you have anything else to say before the end of the show?

SLAVOJ: Yes, I do. I would like to say that I endorse all the products of the Coca-Cola corporation, and that the cool refreshing taste of a glass of Coke proves without question that the transcendent object of desire is not in fact unobtainable – in fact, it can be obtained at your local newsagent or grocery store.

Lights wind down, theme music plays, scattered applause. Slavoj, rising from his seat to re-enter the world, takes an especially deep snort – then starts to gag. Something is clearly wrong. Davina sits impassively as Slavoj chokes on his own mucus: the cameras are off, after all. Slavoj writhes on the ground, flailing frantically. The sycophantic crowd tries to imitate his dying motions. Everywhere they collapse, their limbs jerk around, they feign choking noises. Everything begins to blur: the crowd, the stage, the cameras – now they are only a single undulating mass, a throbbing that reaches up above the horizon and encircles the world. Perhaps an orgy is taking place, it’s difficult to tell. There are no images any more, no clearly defined shapes or people, only an immense all-enveloping pulsation. The dream ends. Still, nothing is understood.

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