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Being in the opposing position

ŽIŽEK / Despite being a public intellectual for at least 30 years, there has been no previous discussion of Slavoj Žižek's thought as multifaceted and nuanced as the one we see in the current anthology. But does Žižek recognise the revolutionary potential of desire?

Žižek Responds!
Author: Dominik Finkelde Todd McGowan
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, UK

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek described himself as a «moderate conservative communist» when the Swiss TV channel SRF interviewed him last year. This combination, he believed, captured the references to him across the political spectrum.

To the far right and far left, Žižek is described as too moderate and pragmatic, while the liberal left sees him as too conservative. At the same time, the right perceives him as a vulgar and hardened communist and Stalinist. Žižek himself believes that the very fact that he is in this contradictory position indicates that he is doing something right. In short, Žižek is controversial, and this has to do with the originality and unpredictability of his positions.

Even though he has been a public intellectual for at least 30 years, there has not previously been as multifaceted and nuanced a discussion of his thinking as we see in the current anthology Žižek Responds! Not least, this publication is special in that each of the fourteen critical articles is followed by a response from Žižek himself. This makes the publication reflective and rich.

The articles criticising Žižek are written by a wide range of authors, from Hegelians such as Robert B. Pippin and editor Todd McGowan to lesser-known names such as Jennifer Friedlander and Nadia Bou Ali. The criticisms are many and varied, and I think Žižek’s positions on the nature of desire and Emmanuel Lévinas are particularly worth mentioning here in Modern Times Review.

The insatiability of desire

One of the criticisms levelled against Žižek in the publication is by the philosopher Mari Ruti. The criticism concerns Žižek’s scepticism towards following desire, what Jacques Lacan called objet petit a. Žižek’s critical attitude towards desire follows from its insatiable nature. That is, no matter how hard you work to satiate your desire, it is constantly reborn. Thus, The grass seems constantly greener on the other side, and Žižek is accused of believing one should not follow one’s desire.

In particular, Žižek links the ephemeral nature of desire to our consumer culture – and capitalism’s ability to make us believe that by replacing what we have with something else, we will be happier. Žižek, on the other hand, believes that we can never be satisfied and that satisfaction is really just a fantasy that gains its strength from its absence. If the grass is greener on the other side, it is because it is experienced as being somewhere other than where we are. But as soon as we get closer to this grass, we realise it is somewhere else, et cetera ad infinitum.

To overcome the insatiability that drives capitalism towards ever-new markets, we must therefore recognise how desire is cultivated. The alternative Žižek offers is to assume that desire can never be satiated and that this insatiable drive can be used for purposes more honourable than desire for desire’s sake – such as political struggle, love, and work.

Ruti’s criticism of Žižek is that he fails to recognise the revolutionary potential of desire. This means that although desire is insatiable, it enables us to be loyal to other people, political causes, or passions, regardless of context and immediate gain. Žižek is thus criticised for overlooking the ability of desire to pick fights and hold onto something that can challenge norms and conventions.

Žižek’s response is that Ruti’s position seems to encompass the random ability of desire to pursue anything. According to Žižek, basing one’s actions on chance is problematic, and he therefore believes that Ruti’s criticism misses the mark.

no matter how hard you work to satiate your desire, it is constantly reborn.

«The Other»

Žižek’s literature has often criticised left-liberal thinking on recognition, particularly in relation to Emmanuel Lévinas’ concept of ‘the Other.’ For many, this has meant that Žižek has functioned as an alternative to the liberal mainstream of the left, which is particularly visible in his criticism of Lévinas.

Lévinas, known as ‘the philosopher of the Other,’ was once asked about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whether Palestinians are the ‘Other’ of Israelis. To this, Lévinas replied that his definition of the ‘Other’ is something completely different and that everyone must realise that there are people who are on the side of injustice (Palestinians). In other words, Lévinas believed that the Palestinian is an all too obvious ‘Other’ and that the ‘real Other’ is not to be seen.

Žižek’s alternative is «Love thy neighbour!». This means neither a cheap call for charity nor a fetishisation of the ‘Other’ to the point where we become blind to the violence that is right in front of us (Lévinas).

Žižek responds to this statement, writing that what Lévinas is really saying is that respect for the ‘Other’ should, in principle, apply unconditionally, but that one must examine whether the ‘Other’ is an enemy when actually confronted with a concrete case. In short, respect for the ‘Other’ has, strictly speaking, nothing to say in practical politics! Žižek’s problem with Lévinas is that Lévinas’ emphasis on the complete externality of the ‘Other’ blinds us to the structural suffering that the ‘Other’ actually suffers. Lévinas’ ethics, therefore, fetishises the otherness of the ‘Other’ to such an extent that he overlooks the concrete and actual ‘Other.’

Žižek’s critique thus shows how Lévinasian respect for the ‘Other’ cannot really confront colonialism and Zionism. This, therefore, undermines Lévinas’ intention of a universalist ethic and shows how his thinking can instead have the opposite effect. However contradictory, imperialism can, therefore, coexist with egalitarian respect for the ‘Other,’ Žižek argues. In fact, this egalitarian respect can help conceal the oppression that imperialist powers actually subject the ‘Other’ to.

Žižek’s alternative is «Love thy neighbour!». This is neither a cheap call for charity nor a fetishisation of the ‘Other’ to the point where we become blind to the violence that is right in front of us (Lévinas). Rather, it is an ongoing struggle to coexist without drawing a clear line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That the ‘Other’ is alien comes from the fact that ‘we’ ourselves never constitute a harmonious, collective unity. We are always strangers to each other and to ourselves. Only from this perspective can true universalism be formed, with a radical openness to shape a common society and a common future.

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