Standing with Slavoj Žižek and Against an Illness on the Left

May 27th, 2016 | By | Category: Articles, Promotions

2016HeaderThis year's Left Forum was, in many ways, identical to last year's forum. It was held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice again, the panels and tables were peopled by all the same liberal and sectarian groups, and the array of issues covered were the same as always. For example, there were panels on single payer healthcare, Cointelpro, Animal Liberation, Imperialism, Syriza, Education, Independent media, Feminism, Black Revolution, and so on...

What marked this year's forum as perhaps different was the already nostalgic focus on Bernie Sanders as well as an unstated and free floating sense of depression.

Due to the success of Trump and the failure of Sanders the US left has been, for the moment, rendered irrelevant. We've been reduced to hoping that the establishment as we've known it will be able to eke out a victory in November.

25-bernie-sanders-social-security-woman.w529.h529 There is talk of harnessing the remnants of Sanders' political campaign in order to launch a new "movement," but the truth is that this election has already demoralized the US left. Instead of reexamining the assumptions, aims, and tactics that have led us to this most recent failure, we've pushed on with the same fragmented agendas.

And the best evidence of the poverty of the US left, the most obvious symptom of the impasse, was this year's reaction to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

"Žižek relies on shock value taken from inverting common good/bad dichotomies. For example, he puts The Thinker on a toilet to say, 'The thoughts from my head are the same as the shit from my body, but here you are listening to me." - taken from a leaflet distributed before the event

In November of last year Žižek penned a controversial essay on the Syrian refugee crisis, one that was both ill conceived and largely misread. At the time Zero Books responded to this essay with a blog post entitled "Where Žižek goes wrong." Since then, however, the emotional reaction to Žižek's essay has become more significant than what Žižek actually said. And even before Sunday's plenary it was clear that, this year, Žižek would not get the kind of warm reception that he, as "the Elvis of political theory," might possibly have come to expect.

slavoj_zizek_in_liverpool_2At the final plenary an small group of anti-Žižek audience members distributed leaflets denouncing the philosopher. One of the two fliers featured a picture of Slavoj sitting with his legs crossed. He was shown staring at some interlocutor outside the frame, obviously listening to a question that he didn't like. The photo was covered over by various supposedly racist or sexist quotes taken from his lectures or essays, quotes either stripped of context or misinterpreted, and by the time Amy Goodman took the stage everyone was focused on this anti-Žižek contingent. We were all eager to hear what Žižek would say and how he would handle a crowd that had, at least in part, been turned against him. But before that we had to listen to an insufferably pious Amy Goodman.

After Goodman finally stopped, after she shouted Democracy Now!, Žižek took the stage and the heckling began. There was a chorus of boos that competed with the applause, and then, from the back of the auditorium, someone yelled "You're full of shit!"

Žižek responded, "If we are going to start off by trading insults I should warn you that I can be very brutal."

57436000c46188ca298b45acAfter that exchange Žižek proceeded with his usual performance. He repeated his standard critiques of "political correctness" and "multiculturalism," but as he went along the crowd grew restless and some people began to trickle out.

"I can't understand a word he's saying," the former publisher to my right told me.

"Leaving now will be read as a political statement," I said.

"His politics aren't that good anyhow."

If I were a journalist I'd fill in more details. I would note how Žižek's detractors wandered through the crowd and whispered complaints and slurs. I might mention that their leader was a youngish woman who carried a red canvas bag over her shoulder and a cellphone in her hands. She was unable to stop texting or tweeting even as she denounced the man on stage. This woman told me that she was concerned that Žižek would refuse to answer questions from the audience and she ridiculously suggested that Žižek was talking so long, taking so long to answer the questions put to him in the "fake interview" after his talk, because he was afraid to face her questions.

Nobody who knows anything about Žižek would say this. Anyone who knows his work or had seen him speak before would know that Zizek is simply incapable of talking for less than five minutes at a stretch or of giving a single answer to any question.

But, these details don't matter. What does matter is the character of the critique, the reasons Žižek's new detractors gave for heckling him, and finally what is behind the call to no platform him.

Panchen_Lama_during_the_struggle_(thamzing)_session_1964Those who attacked Žižek, those who sought to keep him from speaking, didn't have a positive politics or even a critique. All they had was a posture. For these leftists the act of calling someone out, the denunciation, is an end in itself. Those who heckled Žižek, those who demanded to know why the Left Forum had allowed him to speak, they weren't attempting to change anything. They were instead only seeking to exercise their collective power in this one instance.

This is a dangerous moment in the US. With right-wing populism on the rise we can ill afford to indulge childish charades or allow moralistic condemnation to replace serious engagement. And even if the way forward isn't obvious, even if we feel stymied and trapped, we must not fall into this trap of viciousness

If we are to no platform anyone, let us, in the future, refuse to give a platform to those who want only to disrupt. Let's reject all those who offer nothing but smug performances of pseudo-politics.

We at Zero Books, despite our disagreements with some of his ideas and arguments, stand with Žižek.

If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!

5 Comments to “Standing with Slavoj Žižek and Against an Illness on the Left”

  1. Terry Kattleman says:

    Who’s this “we” who no-platformed Z? From the front of the room, I heard maybe three very occasional hecklers in the distance, couldn’t make out what they were saying. They were of no consequence. Yeah, I got the anti-Z handouts, which were patently a ludicrous load of out-of-context shit, didn’t even need Z to refute them, which he graciously took the trouble to do during the Q&A, reducing them to nothing. The woman who attempted to challenge Z during the Q&A had nothing more to say than the utterly feeble, “In what context is it OK to use the N-word?” and she was roundly verbally attacked by a number of Z defenders in the front of the room as she wandered off.

    As for people trickling out, so what? Z’s accent may be hard to understand at times, especially in an oversized, under-PA’d room like this, and he doesn’t talk in easily digestible left-wing soundbites. And when don’t people trickle out in the horrible John Jay gym, where video screens are apparently beyond the LF’s tech capacity? If you’re not in the front of the room, you might as well be in New Jersey.

    • benjamin says:

      “The youngish Woman” who asked the question was Taryn Fivek.

      She got $10 000 on kickstarter after doing this for a very valuable project to give a voice to the voiceless. I don’t know what you mean by accusing them of being nihilistic disruptors with no goals.

      The disruption is even now online

      Does Mr Lain believe that Left Forum is in some way so important to the political project of the Left in America that disrupting it without providing an alternative goal to concentrate people’s efforts would be destructive or even noticed?

      I’d like to hear a justification that could be believed.

      What if Fivek is not purely destructive but an opportunist? Does that make such disruption and destruction acceptable in today’s political climate?

      Left Forum is competition for her own plans of a forum for the unheard Left.
      Can we expect, in a year’s time, a Douglas Lain essay about how we shouldn’t nihilistically tear down the Taryn Fivek media forum unless we are also creating something in its place, because Trump or Hillary is president and the Left has nowhere else to go?

  2. Sander Hicks says:

    Terry has got it right. The sound system was terrible. Left Forum was badly organized this year. (and YET it had so many great moments, regardless of the bureaucracy)

    Before it started, I found it impossible to buy an ad in the program. Left Forum seems to be against e-commerce, so instead they made a simple purchase ornate, and overly complicated.

    Douglas, you don’t give us any reason to love Zizek here. You don’t have any quotes, and you don’t show him displaying any leadership or intellectual rigor. You stayed for the whole two hour speech and you don’t have any great quotations to report?

    At this moment in history, Zizek does seem to be having some kind of mid-life crisis.
    How else to explain these long awkward statements:

    I find especially troubling Zizek’s condemnation of poverty. He seems to be implying that the refugees in Europe are going to be corrupted by their desperation and lack of food. It’s creepy, and he seems to be edging towards an authoritarian, militant heartlessness.

    Left Forum was great because I learned new information about the Deep State, Mondragon, corruption in high-frequency trading, whistle-blowers, Bernie Sanders (for and against), 9/11 and the “28 Pages” and all the recent mainstream media coverage bringing that issue to a head. It’s a very exciting time. I even had the pleasure of convening and leading a revolutionary meditation group.

    But Zizek has nothing to do with any of those issues above. I didn’t see him at the Forum. He didn’t seem to really be a participant. More like a fading comet of the latest pop star philosopher, following Sartre, Derrida, Baudrillard, etc. It’s about time someone held him accountable for his weirder statements. He seems to have the Trump disease. This Elvis emperor has no clothes.

  3. Marc James Léger says:

    I was’t at the Left Forum and so I appreciate this article and the comments that have been posted. I used to worry that no one would pay attention to Zizek but now I’m glad to see that people are worried that other people are paying attention to his work, as they should.

    Douglas Lain’s defense of Zizek’s right to his ideas and freedom from vicious attacks is appreciated. I agree with this, just as Chomsky says about even right-wing thinkers. I wonder though if the two things are not simply two sides of the same liberal politics. There is a very typically liberal way to be against political correctness, as for instance with Bill Maher, and this is one of the things that as someone who works in ideology critique, Zizek is very good at not falling into. The problem is often that people are not leftist at all, or if they are, they are not especially good at it. Lain should not simply say that he disagrees with Zizek’s politics but should also say what he disagrees with. He does provide a link to an article and I suppose that’s where one can find out what the issues are. However, the rest of his article has some peculiar statements that create a takeaway impression that are worth commenting on, especially as he is a Zero Books publisher. I will list these items here and followup with a few comments.

    1. “And even before Sunday’s plenary it was clear that, this year, Žižek would not get the kind of warm reception that he, as “the Elvis of political theory,” might possibly have come to expect.”

    Zizek never asked to be referred to as the ‘Elvis’ of cultural theory or the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the west.’ He didn’t create the hype. All that anyone can say is that he works diligently and in fact, as a more recent figure in the tradition of high-ranking theorists, is extremely helpful and gives as much attention to theory as to practical issues in politics. The people who challenge him do so because his work touches a nerve and questions the predominant left liberalism and post-politics. And as anyone who has read Zizek knows, he always speaks in ways that are informed by his theoretical work. It is unfortunate that people who do not know this work are sometimes taken off guard by his statements. However, few people are as able to communicate complex ideas in as simple ways, and so the kind of criticism he gets is ironic to say the least.

    It makes sense that after Lain’s article, the commenter Sander Hicks would say: “He seems to have the Trump disease. This Elvis emperor has no clothes.” If anyone can explain Trump it’s Zizek (or maybe Thomas Frank). Also, if anyone can explain why it is that everyone knows that the emperor has no clothes, but continue to act as though he does (by writing blog entries about him and comments that criticize him), again, it’s Zizek.

    2. “One of the two fliers featured a picture of Slavoj sitting with his legs crossed. He was shown staring at some interlocutor outside the frame, obviously listening to a question that he didn’t like.”

    This satement is pure phrenology. (Perhaps the flyer was as well – a standard technique used by documentarians to manipulate viewers and tell them how to feel. Even Michael Moore uses this technique, which is not one of his best traits.) We don’t know what Zizk is looking at in this photo and it hardly warrants a statement that his face looks disapproving. Given the long answers that Zizek usually gives, when did he ever field a question he didn’t like? To take someone who is as generous as he is with questions and flip it into its opposite is Orwellian nonsense. But who doesn’t love cheap internet memes?

    3. “His politics aren’t that good anyhow.” (stated by an unnamed friend of the author)

    Zizek and Badiou have almost singlehandedly, on a theoretical and philosophical level, taken left academia out of the abyss of postmodernism. And they did this as people who appreciate and understand postmodern theory better than most academic postmodernists. Negri and the autonomists have not achieved anything as complex as that. Of course this does not give people lots of facts about “high-frequency trading” and such things. For that we look to David Harvey and other radical economists.

    Of course no one works alone and intellectuals do not make social movements. We shouldn’t attack people because of the respect they have legitimately earned – and anyone who has done this with as much gusto as Zizek deserves better. Anyone who is likely to be influenced by him has already read many of his books and has heard his jokes told many times, often in new and unexpected ways. People like Taryn Fivek, aware of Zizek’s prestige, are like the cartoon cat who has just walked off of a precipice and don’t seem to know that they haven’t done their homework. They skim off of the surface of what he says and don’t understand that Zizek is both effective on the surface and in depth (as you can see here: nobody does it better: Andrew Ross wrote the book on this: “No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture.”

  4. SCIArc says:

    If you’re interested in hearing more from Žižek, we hosted a really great conversation with him where he discusses discusses state sovereignty, borders, migration, and global capital. Check it out here:

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