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A Reply to My Critics (re: The Sexual is Political)

A Reply to My Critics (re: The Sexual is Political)

Lately I am getting used to attacks that not only render my position in a totally wrong way but also practice slander pure and simple, so that, at this level, any minimally rational debate becomes meaningless. Among many examples, suffice it to mention Hamid Dabashi, who begins his book Can Non-Europeans Think? with:

“‘Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!’ With those grandiloquent words and the gesture they must have occasioned and accompanied, the distinguished and renowned European philosopher Slavoj Žižek begins his response to a piece that Walter Mignolo wrote…”1

No wonder that no reference is given, since I never uttered the phrase “Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!”. In a public talk in which I responded to Mignolo’s attack on me, I did use the words “fuck you,” but they did not refer to Mignolo: his name was not mentioned in conjunction with them; they were a general exclamation addressed (if at anyone) at my public. From here, it is just one step to elevating my exclamation into “Slavoj Žižek’s famous ‘Fuck you, Walter Mignolo’,” as Dan Glazerbrook did.2

Back to Dabashi’s book. On page 8, the comedy reaches its peak: a long quoted passage is attributed to me (it follows “Žižek claims:”), and after the quote the text goes on: “This is all fine and dandy – for Žižek. He can make any claim he wishes. All power to him. But the point is…” There is just one tiny problem: the passage quoted and attributed to me and then mocked as an example of my European racism and of my misreading of Fanon is from Fanon himself (again, no reference is given in Dabashi’s book – the quoted passage is from Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press 2008, p. 201-206.)

So, I thought we had reached the lowest point, although in a more recent contribution to Al-Jazeera, Dabashi puts me into the same line with Breivik, the Norwegian racist mass murderer.3 But the reactions to my “The Sexual Is Political” demonstrate that one can go even lower. Browsing through numerous tweets and email blogs, I searched in vain for a minimum of argumentation. The attackers mostly just make fun of a position, which is simply not mine.

Here is a relatively decent example:

“I know that this is difficult to understand, mostly because it draws from his big Daddy the contemptible Lacan. Really though, all Zizek is saying is that opposition to transgender people represents an anxiety which in his theory occurs because of sexual difference; i.e. transgender people disrupt the binaries we construct in order to place ourselves into discrete genders. What Zizek tries to say, he’s not a very good writer in English at least, is that the antagonism will exist even if we completely accept LGBT people as members of our community because they always exist as a threat to the binary. I don’t think that Zizek ultimately thinks social antagonism against LGBT people is something we can move beyond as long as the binary system exist. This is why he cites the story of Şalcı Bacı, to Zizek she represented an existential threat to people’s identities. In a sense you can say it is a right-wing concept, because it’s essentially saying that transgender people are indeed the threat to society they’re portrayed to be. The question would be, does Zizek approve of threats to society as the revolutionary he supposes himself to be?”4

I have to admit that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was reading these lines. Is it really so difficult to follow the thread of my argumentation? First claim: “all Zizek is saying is that opposition to transgender people represents an anxiety which in his theory occurs because of sexual difference; i.e. transgender people disrupt the binaries we construct in order to place ourselves into discrete genders…” No, I’m not saying that at all: I don’t talk about the anxiety experienced by heterosexuals when they confront transgender people. My starting point is the anxiety transgender people themselves experience when they confront a forced choice where they don’t recognize themselves in any of its exclusive terms (“man,” “woman”). And then I generalize this anxiety as a feature of every sexual identification. It is not transgender people who disrupt the heterosexual gender binaries; these binaries are always-already disrupted by the antagonistic nature of sexual difference itself. This is the basic distinction on which I repeatedly insist and which is ignored by my critics: in the human-symbolic universe, sexual difference/antagonism is not he same as the difference of gender roles. Transgender people are not traumatic for heterosexuals because they pose a threat to the established binary of gender roles but because they bring out the antagonistic tension which is constitutive of sexuality. Şalcı Bacı is not a threat to sexual difference; rather, she is this difference as irreducible to the opposition gender identities.

In short, transgender people are not simply marginals who disturb the hegemonic heterosexual gender norm; their message is universal, it concerns us all, they bring out the anxiety that underlies every sexual identification, its constructed/unstable character. This, of course, does not entail a cheap generalization which would cut the edge of the suffering of transgender people (“we all have anxieties and suffer in some way”); it is in transgender people that anxiety and antagonism, which otherwise remain mostly latent, break open. So, in the same way in which, for Marx, if one wants to understand the “normal” functioning of capitalism, one should take as a starting point economic crises, if one wants to analyze “normal” heterosexuality, one should begin with the anxieties that explode in transgender people.

This is why it makes no sense to talk about “social antagonism against LGBT people” (incidentally, a symptomatically clumsy and weird expression: “antagonism against”?). Antagonism (or, as Lacan put it, the fact that “there is no sexual relationship”) is at work in the very core of normative heterosexuality, and it is what the violent imposition of gender norms endeavors to contain and obfuscate. It is here that my parallel with the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew enters. The (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” as the threat to the organic order of a society, as the element which brings into it from the outside corruption and decay, is a fetish whose function is to mask the fact that antagonism does not come from the outside but is immanent to every class society. Anti-Semitism “reifies” (embodies in a particular group of people) the inherent social antagonism: it treats “Jews” as the Thing which, from outside, intrudes into the social body and disturbs its balance. What happens in the passage from the position of class struggle to Fascist anti-Semitism is not just the replacement of one figure of the enemy (bourgeoisie, the ruling class) with another (Jews); the logic of the struggle is totally different. In class struggle, the classes themselves are caught in the antagonism inherent to social structure, while the Jew is a foreign intruder who causes social antagonism, so that all we need in order to restore social harmony, according to Fascist anti-Semitism, is to annihilate Jews. This is the old standard Marxist thesis: when my critic writes about my line of thought “In a sense you can say it is a right-wing concept,” I would really like to know what precise sense he has in mind.

So, what is the anxiety I refer to about? For a brief moment, let me ignore my primitive critics and engage in a brief theoretical exercise. The underlying structure is here that of a failed interpellation (where “interpellation” refers to the basic ideological mechanism described by Louis Althusser). In the case of interpellation, Althusser’s own example contains more than his own theorization gets out of it. Althusser evokes an individual who, while carelessly walking down the street, is suddenly addressed by a policeman: “Hey, you there!” By answering the call—that is, by stopping and turning round towards the policeman—the individual recognizes-constitutes himself as the subject of Power, of the big Other-Subject. Ideology

“ ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’.

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical transmission of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings,’ despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences.’

Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.”5

The first thing that strikes the eye in this passage is Althusser’s implicit reference to Lacan’s thesis on a letter that “always arrives at its destination”: the interpellative letter cannot miss its addressee since, on account of its “timeless” character, it is only the addressee’s recognition/acceptance that constitutes it as a letter. The crucial feature of the quoted passage, however, is the double denial at work in it: the denial of the explanation of interpellative recognition by means of a “guilt feeling,” as well as the denial of the temporality of the process of interpellation (strictly speaking, individuals do not “become” subjects, they “always-already” are subjects).6 This double denial is to be read as a Freudian denial: what the “timeless” character of interpellation renders invisible is a kind of atemporal sequentiality that is far more complex than the “theoretical theatre” staged by Althusser on behalf of a suspicious alibi of “convenience and clarity.” This “repressed” sequence concerns a “guilt feeling” of a purely formal, “non-pathological” (in the Kantian sense) nature, a guilt which, for that very reason, weighs most heavily upon those individuals who “have nothing on their consciences.” To ask differently: In what, precisely, does the individual’s first reaction to the policeman’s “Hey, you there!” consist? In an inconsistent mixture of two elements: (1) why me? what does the policeman want from me? I’m innocent, I was just minding my own business and strolling around…; however, this perplexed protestation of innocence is always accompanied by (2) an indeterminate Kafkaesque feeling of “abstract” guilt, a feeling that, in the eyes of Power, I am a priori terribly guilty of something, though it is not possible for me to know what precisely I am guilty of. And for that reason—since I don’t know what I am guilty of—I am even more guilty; or, more pointedly, it is in this very ignorance of mine that my true guilt consists.7

What we thus have here is the entire Lacanian structure of the subject split between innocence and abstract, indeterminate guilt, confronted with a non-transparent call emanating from the Other (“Hey, you there!”), a call where it is not clear to the subject what the Other actually wants from him (“Che vuoi?”). In short, what we encounter here is interpellation prior to identification. Prior to the recognition in the call of the Other by means of which the individual constitutes himself as “always-already”-subject, we are obliged to acknowledge this “timeless” instant of the impasse, when innocence coincides with indeterminate guilt: the ideological identification by means of which I assume a symbolic mandate and recognize myself as the subject of Power takes place only as an answer to this impasse. So what remains “unthought” in Althusser’s theory of interpellation is the fact that prior to ideological recognition we have an intermediate moment of obscene, impenetrable interpellation without identification, a kind of vanishing mediator that has to become invisible if the subject is to achieve symbolic identity, i.e., to accomplish the gesture of subjectivization. In short, the “unthought” of Althusser is that there is already an uncanny subject preceding the gesture of subjectivization.

And the same goes in a much stronger way for sexual interpellation. My identification as “man” or “woman” is always a secondary reaction to the “castrative” anxiety of what I am. One—traditional—way to avoid this anxiety is to impose a heterosexual norm, which specifies the role of each gender, and the other is to advocate the overcoming of sexuality as such (the postgender position). As for the relationship between transgender and postgender, my point is simply that the universal fluidification of sexual identities unavoidably reaches its apogee in the cancellation of sex as such. In the same way as, for Marx, the only way to be a royalist in general is to be a republican, the only way to be sexualized in general is to be asexual. This ambiguity characterizes the conjunction of sexuality and freedom throughout the twentieth century: the more radical attempts to liberate sexuality get, the more they approximate their self-overcoming and turn into attempts to enact a liberation from sexuality, or, as Aaron Schuster put it (in personal communication):

If part of the twentieth century’s revolutionary program to create a radically new social relation and a New Man was the liberation of sexuality, this aspiration was marked by a fundamental ambiguity: Is it sexuality that is to be liberated, delivered from moral prejudices and legal prohibitions, so that the drives are allowed a more open and fluid expression, or is humanity to be liberated from sexuality, finally freed from its obscure dependencies and tyrannical constraints? Will the revolution bring an efflorescence of libidinal energy or, seeing it as a dangerous distraction to the arduous task of building a new world, demand its suppression? In a word, is sexuality the object of or the obstacle to emancipation?

The oscillation between these two extremes is clearly discernible already in the first decade after the October Revolution, when feminist calls for the liberation of sexuality were soon supplemented by the gnostic-cosmological calls for a New Man who would leave behind sexuality itself as the ultimate bourgeois trap. Today, with the rise of the “Internet of Things” and biogenetics, this perspective got a new boost. And, as a part of this new perspective, I predict that new demands for overcoming old limitations will emerge. Among them there will be demands for legalizing multiple marriages (which already existed, not only as polygamy but also as polyandry, especially in the Himalaya region), as well as demands for some kind of legalization of intense emotional ties with animals. I am not talking about sex with animals (although I remember from my youth, from the time of the late 1960s, the widespread tendency to practice sex with animals), even less about “bestiality,” but about a tendency to recognize some animals (say, a faithful dog) as legitimate partners. It’s not about “bestiality,” but about the “culturalization of animals, their elevation to a legal partner.

To recapitulate, not only do I fully support the struggle of transgender people against their legal segregation, but I am also deeply affected by their reports of their suffering, and I see them not as a marginal group, which should be “tolerated” but as a group whose message is radically universal: it concerns us all; it tells the truth about all of us as sexual beings. I differ from the predominant opinion in two interconnected points that concern theory: (1) I see the anxiety apropos sexual identities as a universal feature of human sexuality, not just as a specific effect of sexual exclusions and segregations, which is why one should not expect it to disappear with the progress of sexual desegregation; (2) I draw a strict distinction between sexual difference (as the antagonism constitutive of human sexuality) and the binary (or plurality) of genders. Both these points are, of course, totally misread or ignored by my critics.

Concerning my “class reductionism,” anyone minimally acquainted with my work knows that one of the problems I am dealing with is precisely how to bring the struggle of Third World people against neo-colonial oppression and the struggle for sexual emancipation (women and gay rights) in the developed West together. Some Leftists claim that we should focus on the universal anti-capitalist struggle, allowing each ethnic or religious group to retain its particular culture or “way of life.” I see a problem in this easy solution: one cannot distinguish in a direct way the universal dimension of the emancipatory project and the identity of a particular way of life, so that while we are all together engaged in a universal struggle, we simultaneously fully respect the right of each group to its particular way of life. One should never forget that, to a subject who lives a particular way of life, all universals appear “colored” by this way of life. Each identity (way of life) comprises also a specific way to relate to other ways of life. So, when we posit as a guideline that each group should be left to enact its particular identity, to practice its own way of life, the problem immediately arises: where do customs that form my identity stop and where does injustice begin? Are woman’s rights just our custom, or is the struggle for women’s rights also universal (and part of the emancipatory struggle, as it was in the entire Socialist tradition from Engels to Mao)? Is homophobia just a thing of a particular culture to be tolerated as a component of its identity? Should arranged marriages (which form the very core of the kinship structures of some societies) also be accepted as part of a particular identity? Etc.

This “mediation” of the universal with the particular (way of life) holds for all cultures, ours (Western) included, of course. The “universal” principles advocated by the West are also colored by the Western way of life, plus we should never forget the rise of religious-nationalist fundamentalism in countries like Poland, Hungary and Croatia. In the last decades, Poland was one of the few European definitive success stories. After the fall of Socialism, the per capita gross domestic product more than doubled, and, for the last couple of years, the moderate liberal-centrist government of Donald Tusk ruled. And then, almost out of nowhere, without any great corruption scandals as in Hungary, the extreme Right took over, and there is now a widespread movement to prohibit abortions even in the limit-cases of the mortal danger to the mother’s health, rape, and deformities of the foetus. A whole series of problems emerge here: what if equality among humans is in tension with equality among cultures (insofar as some cultures neglect equality)?

The task is thus to bring the struggle into every particular way of life. Each particular “way of life” is antagonistic, full of inner tensions and inconsistencies, and the only way to proceed is to work for an alliance of struggles in different cultures. From here I would like to return to the project of the alliance between progressive middle classes and nomad proletarians: In terms of a concrete problematic, this means that the politico-economic struggle against global capitalism and the struggle for women’s rights, etc. have to be conceived as two moments of the same emancipatory struggle for equality.

These two aspects—the imposition of Western values such as universal human rights, and respect for different cultures independently of the horrors that can be part of these cultures—are the two sides of the same ideological mystification. A lot has been written about how the universality of universal human rights is twisted, how they secretly give preference to Western cultural values and norms (the priority of the individual over his/her community, and so on). But we should add to this insight that the multiculturalist, anti-colonialist defence of the multiplicity of ways of life is also false: it covers up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life, justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expressions of a particular culture that we have no right to judge by foreign Western values.

This aspect should in no way be dismissed as marginal. From Boko Haram and Mugabe to Putin, anti-colonialist critique of the West more and more appears as the rejection of Western “sexual” confusion and as the demand for returning to traditional sexual hierarchy. It is, of course, true that the immediate export of Western feminism and individual human rights can serve as a tool of ideological and economic neo-colonialism. (We all remember how some American feminists supported the US intervention in Iraq as a way to liberate women there, while the result is exactly the opposite). But one should nonetheless absolutely reject to draw from this the conclusion that Western Leftists should make here a “strategic compromise,” silently tolerating “customs” of humiliating women and gays on behalf of the “greater” anti-imperialist struggle.

The communist struggle for universal emancipation means a struggle which cuts into each particular identity, dividing it from within. When there is racism, when there is domination over women, it is always an integral part of a particular “way of life,” a barbarian integral underside of a particular culture. In the “developed” Western world, Communist struggle means a brutal and principled struggle against all ideological formations which, even if they present themselves as “progressive,” serve as an obstacle to universal emancipation (liberal feminism, etc.). It means not only attacking our own racist and religious fundamentalisms, but also demonstrating how they arouse out of the inconsistencies of the predominant liberalism. And in Muslim countries, Communist strategy should in no way be to endorse their traditional “way of life” which includes honor killings, etc.; it should not only collaborate with the forces in these countries which fight traditional patriarchy, but it should also make a crucial step forward and demonstrate how, far from serving as a point of resistance against global capitalism, such traditional ideology is a direct tool of imperialist neocolonialism.

[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on August 5th 2016]

Footnotes

  1. Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think?, London: Zed Books 2015, p. 1.
  2. Quoted from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/16/with-enemies-like-this-imperialism-doesnt-need-friends/.
  3. See http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/06/europe-creation-world-160613063926420.html.
  4. Quoted from: https://m.reddit.com/r/GamerGhazi/comments/4vxmfk/philosopher_slavoj_zizek_knows_next_to_nothing/.
  5. Louis Althusser, »Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,«  in Essays in Ideology, London: Verso 1984, p. 163.
  6. I resume here a more detailed critical reading of Althusser’s notion of ideology from Chapter 3 of Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso Books, 2006.
  7. Here I follow the perspicacious observations of Henry Krips. See his excellent unpublished manuscript »The Subject of Althusser and Lacan.«

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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