Slavoj Zizek: This is not a Humanitarian Crisis


Zizek in his latest video has caused a stir of FB, so I thought I’d try to transcribe what he says and then close read it. (I neither support nor attack, but have tried to inform and relay the message for those interested.) I embedded it below as well.

He tells us the refugee migration out of Syria must be put into perspective, saying: “This is not a humanitarian crisis!” In the video he uses an example from cinema in which a view of refugees being saved in the last moments from boats coming into Greece. He’ll admit this is tragic, but that it misses more than it shows, saying, “What we need to do in cinematic terms is that the shot begins with a close up, but we should then slowly pan out till what we see in the old Marxist terms call the ‘social totality’.

The he asks: “What is going on? We should begin to ask the real question of who is responsible for this crisis? And, I don’t think it is only Western liberalism that is responsible for it. When something happens in a Third World country like Rwanda or others certain leftist think it must be a consequence of neo-colonialism. No, sorry, things like ISIS, things like the expansion of Islam, so on and so on. This is not a passive reaction, this is an active project, they are also active agents.”

The TV host then asks: “What is the solution then? How do you tackle this… what is your solution?”

Zizek: “Now this may shock you, but I think this is the only concept that Leftist – from a truly Leftist position: I don’t think too much integration is good. I think what we need in our multicultural mixed society is a degree of ‘distance’. My ideal today is not to live together with all these rent racist culture – “we all love each other”: No! I admit it openly, there are things about them I don’t understand, and probably there are many things that appear weird to them in what I do. I want to allow ignorance, and then from time to time, of course, its wonderful…”

The TV host then asks: “Then you have polarized communities, and you have a potential rise of extremism? If you have people living in entirely separate enclaves?”

Zizek: “No, actually here comes another problem, I claim that extremists… Look closely at their life stories, they are not truly excluded, they are deeply fascinated by those Western culture, and they kind of side with it deeply. They envy it. If anything, this wave of young people, ready to fight for ISIS and so forth. They react to a certain type of integration that didn’t work.”

The TV host asks: “So if you’re saying you have to respect each other’s differences, and stop trying to integrate, where does that leave Britain with Europe and the European Union… On whether to stay in or leave?”

Zizek: “First let me correct you, I love these marginal spheres where different identities intermingle and so on, this is usually the source of the site where interesting things happen. And let’s say don’t enforce it, it’s a catastrophe…”

TV Host: “So what I want to know is where does it leave the UK’s relationship with the European Union? Or we better off being part of one big happy family… or… – Zizek interrupts…” (She seems more interested in the UK than in the actual issue of the refugees. As if the refugee issue was a side issue, and that the issue of the UK staying or exiting the EU is a more important issue.)

Zizek: “No we’re not happy, we all know… I think the only way to fight the destructive aspect of Global Capital is through transnational connections. The problems we are facing today … intellectual property, ecological problems, and so on… biogenetics… These are problems which can only be properly approached large international operations.”

TV Host: “Stay in and reform is clearly in site?”

Zizek: “I’m a little bit tired of people saying, “Oh Europe is dead, it’s over. Sorry why are there so many people… haha … Because they still have this dream, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an illusion. No! As we know in politics illusions have a certain political efficiency. And this illusion is not a bad one. Europe needs a land, a place where you can combine a certain level of freedom, safety, weak social solidarity, minimum of welfare and so on… This part of the European legacy is worth fighting for.”

Liberal Universalism & Zizek’s Dialectical Critique

What’s always amazing is that Zizek is attacked by Western liberals as not being one of them, and is attacked by Communist hard-liners as not being a true Marxist. Zizek being an agent provocateur of culture and the political arena has always fallen into hyperbolic overstatement and shock appeal.

Zizek is a provocateur, he says shocking things not only to wake people out of their complaisance, but also to make them think and think again. He seeks to make you look not at the obvious statement out of context, but rather to what it reveals in what is concealed. In the old school meaning Zizek inverts the traditional meaning of the agent provocateur, and becomes a secret agent of alternative cultures who encourages people to carry out a political change against the present ideology of Western global capitalism. His method is to incite people out of their lethargy, to awaken them and to as well cause the opponent to do counterproductive or ineffective acts against him (i.e., criticize him, or foster public disdain or provide a pretext for aggression against him, etc.). The agent provocateur activities raise ethical and legal issues in every culture, but in the West they are usually labeled and renounced through the pressure of Press and Media.

If one has carefully read Zizek over the years he’s always taken the low road, spun tales of disgust and shock against the usual liberal humanist creeds and notions of Universalist discourse which has brought many in the West to both misunderstand and place him against himself. Many even from the communist side see him as the enemy from within and hate him for it. What’s always been strange for me is that many people never dip below the surface texture of his works, but rather accept the media caricature of Zizek the Clown, rather than the actual dialectical arguments he presents. Our culture is losing its traditions in humanistic learning, and because of that we are losing the force of what Marxist dialectical materialism once was: a humanistic enterprise. Of course, that’s the point of many academics in our moment: humanism is the enemy, right? The early Marx, influenced by Feuerbach’s humanistic inversion of Hegelian idealism, articulated a concept of species-being, according to which man’s essential nature is that of a free producer, freely reproducing their own conditions of life. However, under capitalism individuals are alienated from their productive activity insofar as they are compelled to sell their labor-power as a commodity to a capitalist; their sensuous life-activity, or labor, thus appears to them as something objective, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. To overcome alienation and allow man to realize his species-being, therefore, the wage-labor system itself must be transcended, and the separation of the laborer from the means of labor abolished.

Zizek’s argument in this video is not truly about segregation or integration, etc.. It’s about the Liberal West’s imposition of universalist standards of morality and ethical dilemmas upon a Third World culture who does not share those standards or ethical beliefs. Because of racism and slavery in our own Western liberal heritage we have over time battled for integration and the breaking down of walls and hierarchies separating peoples of all nationalities, race, and culture. But that there are those in the Third World who do not share our Universalist discourse, nor our ethical dilemmas; and, in fact see them from other perspectives and claims. For Zizek our imposition of Liberal Western ideology of integration may not only cause more strife but lead to more terrorist acts when we impose our systems and ideologies upon the refugees against their will. For us this is hard to accept, but what he’s saying is that we have yet to learn to listen to them and what they want. Maybe it’s time to  listen to the refugees rather than imposing our high and mighty liberal ethics of responsibility, etc. upon them without asking them what they want or need.

Zizek is neither for segregation or integration, which for him are part of Western liberalist tradition and politics – and, therefore a problem rather than a solution; instead he sees not only great that divisions are walls against the other, rather than those of solidarity among; and, both sides of the issue need a certain distance and respect, one that seeks a level of interaction rather than Universalist imposition. As he’ll suggest we need neutral sites where people from both sides can intermingle and cohabitate ‘spaces of freedom’ without forcing or enforcing legal or ethnic enclosures. He also sees that this is a question about Global Capitalism rather than the refugees, and that it will take a larger transnational concourse of all earth’s nations to resolve this issue, not just the imposition of Western liberalist ethics and ideology, the so to speak democratic universalism which has been tried and has failed across the globe.

As far as the notion of UK leaving or staying he supports the need for the EU as a larger entity with its ramifications for economic well-being, but that it must do more to actually benefit the member nations rather than as now imposing arbitrary austerity and legal servitude upon them.

Zizek is not so much against Universalism per se, only the form of Western liberalism’s use of it. As he’d say in another interview about communism as he sees it:

Instead of asking the obvious stupid question: what is the idea of communism still pertinent today? Can it still be used as a tool for the analysis and political practice? One should ask, I think, the opposite question: how does our predicament today look from the perspective of the communist idea? This is the dialectic of old and the new. If communism is an eternal idea then it works as a Hegelian concrete universality. It is eternal not in the sense of a series of abstract features which can be applied to every situation, but in the sense that it has the ability, the potential to be reinvented in its new historical situation. So my first conclusion: to be true to what is eternal in communism, that is to say, to this drive towards radical emancipation which persists in the entire history from ancient times of Spartacus and so on, to keep this universal idea alive one has to reinvent it again and again. And this holds especially today. As Lenin put it one should begin from the beginning.

So that his defense of ‘concrete universalism’ over Western liberal Enlightenment forms of abstract universalism becomes the order of the day. The point of this form of ‘concrete universalism’ is that it arises out of concrete historical situations from below, rather than being imposed from above like some absolute law. And, this form of ‘concrete universalism’ is bound to the historical dilemmas of temporality, and because of this are always needing to be reinvented if situations change – as they always do. Or as he says, “this universal idea” must be reinvented “again and again”.

Zizek plays into this history, but has taken his cue from Hegel’s notions of ‘concrete universalism’. Zizek in another interview will say:

Humanism is not enough. In the same way that Freud talks about meta-psychology. There must be a dimension above it. Theology is another name for meta-psychology, for something that is in Man more than Man, the inhuman core of Man etc. These are very precise terms. It’s interesting how many American theologists with whom I debated, they were very close to what I’m saying. They accepted this. They told me “If this is materialism, I’m a materialist.” That is to say that God is  not an old man sitting up there pulling the strings etc. God is just a name for this void, openness, this inhuman, more than human. I think that we should rehabilitate, and we all agree here with my friends, Badiou, Agamben, me, of course not in the sense of “Let’s kill them” inhumanity, more than human, trans-human dimension.(19)

The video…


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