It is Slavoj Žižek who I have to thank for much of my interest in philosophy — and perhaps most of my intellectual outputs. A chance encounter with his books “Living in the End Times” and “The Parallax View,” which I painstakingly inched my eighth-grade self through, sparked my interest in his other works, which naturally led me to follow his references back in time to the great philosophers of the modern age. I have found his writing, in all of its haphazard glory, wonderfully compelling. It was the triumph of my high school career when I slogged my way through “Less Than Nothing,” the thousand-page pile of contradictions that I had grown to resent sitting on my bookshelf. I have come to measure my intellectual worth by my ability to understand the arguments in his longer work (currently very little, previously not at all). It pains me, then, to castigate him for his recent article about modern political culture, but in some sense, I feel my relationship with him puts me in a strong position to try to understand not just what he is wrong about but how such a luminary could fall for such obvious intellectual pitfalls.
The primary subject of my ire is his essay, published just this past week, which I stumbled upon completely by chance. Its title, “Wokeness Is Here To Stay,” perhaps did not alarm me as much as it should have. Žižek’s philosophy can be characterized as orthodox, almost traditionalist, for his love of Hegel, Lacan (and to a lesser extent Freud), and of course Marx. His persona in the public consciousness, on the other hand, one which I would contend is deliberately cultivated, is that of a Diogenean provocateur, an iconoclast but not a self-serious one. It is this side of him that seems to inform his articles, public lectures, and the more accessible aspects of his intellectual work. Thus, it did not surprise me to read that he had picked a title sure to get clicks and raise eyebrows. I had grown accustomed to one of his favorite tricks, picking aspects of culture considered outside the scope of formal philosophical analysis, and tearing into them with a sense of joy (in one lecture he discusses Kung Fu Panda — in another, the particular structure of toilets across Europe providing an ultimate retort to the concept of a post-ideological postmodernist world). In most cases, the points he makes are ultimately salient, and more importantly, serve as an amusing but nonetheless (perhaps resultantly) effective introduction to some element of his broader philosophy.
This was more or less my expectation diving into his latest essay, and at first glance, “Wokeness Is Here To Stay” follows the same formula. He begins with the current political turmoil in Scotland over trans rights, touches on some other contemporary political issues, and eventually concludes the piece with some allusion to Freud and Lacan. However, this cursory reading would be fundamentally incorrect. Even ignoring the structural differences which lie beneath the surface (this I will return to), there is a sense of bitterness within the piece that seems difficult to square with his usual tone. This is to say nothing of the content of his argument, which is my primary concern.
Žižek is not engaging in some semiotic analysis of the arguments surrounding the recent political controversy around trans rights in Scotland, nor is he truly linking them to much else. At the end of the day, Žižek is just engaging in policy debate with the thinnest veneer of his philosophical method, and he is, regrettably, completely wrong. Žižek has fallen for the panic surrounding trans healthcare that has seemed to infect the entirety of liberal intelligentsia in the past decade. His usual skepticism is here reserved only for a regurgitation of the usual concern trolling. He writes:
“Puberty blockers were administered to almost all children sent for assessment at Tavistock, including to autistic and troubled youngsters, who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. In other words, life-altering treatments were being given to vulnerable children before they were old enough to know whether they wanted to medically transition. As one of the critics said, ‘a child experiencing gender distress needs time and support—not to be set on a medical pathway they may later regret.’”
This passage begs the question: does Žižek, in all his intellectual capacity, even know what puberty blockers are? His use of quotations here is particularly revealing, as he does it frequently in the piece, and confirms what was already suggested. Indeed, had he read the Guardian article he cites, he might have even been able to remedy the paragraph quoted above. The line above the one he cites reads, “Cross-sex hormones are only prescribed from the age of 16 and experts say puberty blockers do not cause infertility.” We therefore can’t even give the Slovenian the benefit of intellectual laziness. This is dishonesty, pure and simple, and a dangerous form at that.
Even more egregious is his first cultural object of analysis, with which he opens the article, which is somehow even more callous and ever the more histrionic. It would be hard to miss it, too, as the editors of Compact thankfully created a nice pull quote that follows you as you scroll the page (just in case you haven’t gotten thoroughly primed for his argument yet). It reads: “We have a person who identifies itself as a woman using its penis to rape two women.” He is referring to the case of Isla Bryson, whose conviction makes her the first ever trans woman in Scotland convicted of rape and served as a Rorschach test for everyone with “concerns” about trans people. Here, Žižek is just wrong on the basic facts, misrepresenting the timeline of Bryson’s transition. More troubling is his use of essentializing language and further histrionics to try to inflame the reader (the phrase “penis-having rapist in prison with captive women” comes to mind). His insistence on misgendering Bryson, first simply as ‘he’ and then more troublingly as ‘it,’ suggests that Žižek sees respecting trans identity as something discretionary and contingent on good behavior. Žižek is, in this article and to put it lightly, transphobic. More than just that, though, he is boring, unoriginal, dishonest, and lazy. He writes nothing in his takes on trans people that I couldn’t get from similar screeds in The Guardian or The New York Times.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Žižek might finally talk about philosophy at this point, but you would, unfortunately, be wrong. The next portion of the article is even longer, and even less interesting — it is pretty much shilling for another article in Compact magazine. He summarizes it and then restates its conclusions, folding it into his purportedly broader point about how the wonderfully nebulous “wokeness” is a new secular religion of the left. This point isn’t new — it’s the sort of thing you hear all the time in American conservatism. It’s an echo of the fundamentalist Christian argument that atheism is a religion with science as its god, which is to say that it is not an argument to be taken seriously. He briefly flirts with a more nuanced argument, saying: “To be clear: There is a kernel of truth in this. Those who are brutally oppressed can’t afford the deep reflection and well-elaborated debate needed to bring out the falsity of liberal-humanist ideology.” However, this brush with making a reasonable point is short lived, and Žižek quickly sets this aside and positions himself as the arbiter of those whose oppression entitles them to talk about it: “Those who appropriate the role of the leaders of the revolt are precisely not the brutalized victims of the racist oppression. The woke are a relatively privileged minority of a minority allowed to participate in a top quality workshop of an elite university.” Perhaps, if one were in the mood to entertain this thought, there could be an interesting argument about who leads movements and what social privileges might get them to such positions, but this is not Žižek’s point. He is instead interested only in bemoaning the results of one particular class at one particular school, implicitly suggesting that this happens a lot and in a lot of places, and that maybe this whole racial justice thing has gone too far. Once again, Žižek fails to even be incorrect in a way that might be interesting or novel.
Finally, more than halfway through the article, Žižek introduces psychoanalysis. The college course which devolved into cannibalistic persecution is, supposedly, the manifestation of the superego. However, our relief is short-lived, because herein lies the structural innovation in the article. Take Žižek’s favorite toilet: while introducing it as an object of analysis requires projecting his philosophy onto it, ultimately this system is flipped, and the toilet instead becomes a tool to prove his philosophical point about the nature of ideology. Alas, here there is no inversion, and Žižek is forever applying and reapplying allusions to his ultimately insipid argument about how annoyed he is by wokeness. Instead of philosophy, we get yet more examples of the vague cultural force called Wokeness that seemingly haunts Žižek’s mind:
“A series of situations that characterize today’s society exemplify perfectly this type of superego pressure, like the endless PC self-examination: Was my glance at the flight attendant too intrusive and sexually offensive? Did I use any words with a possible sexist undertone while addressing her? And so on and so on. The pleasure, thrill even, provided by such self-probing is evident.”
Perhaps if Žižek cannot help but question every interaction he has with a flight attendant, the first priority for psychoanalysis might not be society but rather himself. For this example, he even fails to supply a flimsy anecdote as he has before (further evidence that maybe he just needs to calm down a little on planes). Next, Žižek brings up Salman Rushdie, who he describes as “denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) inviting the fatwa condemning him to death.” But denounced by whom? He says nothing. Instead he gestures, hoping the reader will just nod along to this baffling assertion. Perhaps my view is limited, but since the stabbing attack on Rushdie, I have seen nothing but hagiographies of him in the press.
Particularly troubling as well is another line in this passage, which truly severs any tether that might have remained between Žižek and reality within the article:
“The black woke elite is fully aware it won’t achieve its declared goal of diminishing black oppression — and it doesn’t even want that. What they really want is what they are achieving: a position of moral authority from which they may terrorize all others, without effectively changing social relations of domination.”
To this, the most effective response is to appropriate a question from Žižek himself, from his famous debate with disgraced psychologist and fascist Jordan Peterson. Peterson had, throughout his career, railed against the so-called “Postmodern Neo-Marxists” who had infiltrated every last bit of academia and position of power. Žižek asked him the simple question that collapsed this conspiratorial worldview, and I field it here back at him: who is the black woke elite, and who are its members? His article suggests only one group as potentially being members, this being the group of undergraduates who derailed their Black Studies course, but surely Žižek is not so confused as to think that these students in particular have some grand social power or plot to publicly shame him for crudely complimenting the flight attendant. As much as this feels like a strawman, what else are we to draw from the half-finished arguments he gives us? The only alternative would be that the lack of clarity is intentional, that Žižek has chosen to pedal in the same vague conspiracism as his former adversary.
The end of the article continues on much the same, incorporating a Freudian dream to ultimately make the following closing argument: “The woke awaken us — to racism and sexism — precisely to enable us to go on sleeping. They show us certain realities so that we can go on ignoring the true roots and depth of our racial and sexual traumas.” An article with this conclusion would theoretically make this argument, but there is no real syllogism that leads up to this point. At the end of the day, if this was the argument he was actually advancing in the piece, I likely wouldn’t be writing this: the truth is that pretending that this is the point that was inevitably going to be arrived at is just another trick Žižek has played on us. If this were truly the point, surely Žižek would have made some differentiation between the always foggy “woke” and those actually fighting against the “true roots and depth of our racial and sexual traumas.” No such differentiation is given. This ending is a turn, meant to obscure the true reactionary nature of the piece and disguise it as the protestations of a good-intentioned leftist with concerns about the new directions of liberalism.
So, what’s the deal? How did Žižek come to write this? The answer lies in his misplaced desire to be oppositional. Ironically, he is guilty of the thing he accuses others of falling prey to within the piece, that of envisioning for himself an Other that haunts him. One line in particular stands out in demonstrating this point: “In short, what we have here is the worst combination of politically correct badgering with the brutal calculation of financial interests. The use of puberty blockers is yet another case of woke capitalism.” Here, Žižek is appealing to the seemingly perennial argument that originated in Janice Raymond’s 1979 “The Transsexual Empire,” the concept that the various procedures and therapies that transgender people choose to seek out represent a significant financial interest for pharmaceutical corporations. In doing so, he is able to recast those advocating for easier access to life-saving care not as fighting for some real material conflict over their bodies but instead as being on the side of capital and therefore nefarious individuals. It is this confusion about power, about who these movements benefit, that blinds him, and allows a man who has read Butler and Foucault to write:
“There is nothing ‘abnormal’ in sexual confusion: What we call ‘sexual maturation’ is a long, complex, and mostly unconscious process. It is full of violent tensions and reversals—not a process of discovering what one really is in the depth of one’s psyche.”
Much like the piece as a whole, it is his usual essentialism and transphobia wrapped in the thin veneer of his particular philosophical process. The ultimate result is Žižek’s stamp of approval on the wave of hysteria that has already damaged the material lives of trans people in the U.K. and U.S.
Žižek has seemingly slipped into the miasma of journalists and intellectuals eternally skeptical of social change, the ultimate irony coming from a man so critical of postmodern skepticism. This sort of writing does not become him. It turns his rich allusions to past thinkers into cover for bad arguments, his whimsicalness into bitterness. It’s a sad day for us and, in many ways, a sad day for Žižek. He’s at his best in his rich theoretical work and at his worst here, and you can feel, reading the essay, that he can tell, at least a little.