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.
Before all those who decry Zizek fanboys rush to pounce on me — I haven’t read a single piece by Zizek other than this article of his , which I read to better situate myself, and I personally don’t really care about Zizek. So no, I’m not a massive Zizek fan personally rebuffed at some non-flattering article written about him.
“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.”
This is a little unclear to me where you’re getting that he’s “interested only in bemoaning the results of one particular class at one particular school” when reading the original piece? unless that’s an implicit stance. (which, by the way, is more of a particular class at one particular summer programme, or one particular summer programme at one particular school, if we are to talk about slightly misleading language and inaccuracies)
another bone to pick — regarding the fatwa, you say:
“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.”
>>> denounced by some guy with recognised authority in Islamic law — this seems pretty clear in the definition of what a fatwa is, and doesn’t need. And obviously, what the masses might think (with hagiographies and whatnot) does not necessarily align with whatever the person who issued the fatwa might think. (If my memory serves correctly, it was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, issued to Rushdie for blaspheming against Islam in The Satanic Verses. Terribly mid book, imo, but I suppose it gets you recognition from the Ayatollah.)
I see where you’re coming from overall and agree with some of your points, but it feels like other parts could have used a little more research on your part as well.
My last question — What does seeing Zizek as a Diogenes-like instigator do for your reception of his words or ideas? I think I’ve always been a little hesitant to put motives in the mouths of authors, especially when dead (which Zizek is not), because it detracts from whatever point they *might* be making and precludes us from seeing that point. I find a tinge of uncharitability within this article that I think I would be willing to link to that understanding of Zizek qua troll. (This, even though I agree with you that the original article seems to also be quite mid and flaccid. “I am not your enemy”, I suppose is what I’m trying to say.)
Thank you for your response. I would like to clarify and respond to a few of the points you lay out in your comment.
First, your point regarding the “one particular class at one particular school” argument I levy picks up on a moment of ambiguity in my writing. My intention is to draw attention to the way Zizek relies on anecdotal situations (which could be very reasonably analyzed as such) to implicitly suggest that this is the paradigm everywhere. While I do not have data (I doubt such data exists), my very confident guess would be that most programs on race do not turn out in the way that this particular one did. Thus Zizek would need to argue a reason why this example has relevance outside of the walls of the room it happened in, which he seems to gloss over. Instead there is just the vague implication that things like this are happening and we must be concerned about it.
With regards to your reading of Rushdie, I invite you to read this part of Zizek’s piece again. He is specifically denouncing a perceived hostility towards Rushdie in the western press (which he attributes to ‘wokeness’). This is the context from which I write, that the western press has written his praises. It would be absurd of me to suggest that the response to his work has been universally positive, considering the fatwa and stabbing.
To your last point re Diogenes. I point out this perception of him not as a lens through which to view him but to preempt against the defense that he is simply a provocateur. I argue that though he may be provocative in his essays and public lectures, he is nonetheless a serious philosopher whose ideas ought to make sense outside of their ability to provoke. In the case of this particular essay, I argue that his thesis is one born by a will-to-provocation and vague gestures at perceived societal ills, rather than a serious piece of analysis. That is to say, I can stomach or even enjoy some provocation, some political incorrectness or whatever you might call it in the pursuit of good philosophy, but here Zizek seems to be treating what was once the means as the end itself.
At first I admired Melanie for reading Zizek in 8th grade, but this particular polemic just reminds me of that annoying student who hyper-obsessively argues about semantics. It’s also a kind of break-up letter to a thinker she once admired, but maybe she should be thinking more for herself rather than hoping for Zizek to explain the world and align with her subjective, idiosyncratic politics. I’m glad Zizek spoke up and against wokeness. His point about wokeness combining PC badgering with capitalistic brutal financial cunning (in the form of cancel culture) is spot-on. I don’t think it’s Zizek who’s lost the plot — if you truly know him, he’s just being himself, as always. I think it’s Leftism that has lost the plot. Zizek writes, if you know his modus operandi, based on a Socratic style of conversing first about a topic and then basically capturing that in written words, like a Socrates and Plato in one. I think what he’s concerned about is wokeness as a mind virus — more damaging than covid, potentially — and as a way of thinking that is un-philosophical at best and fascistic at worst. (Keep in mind that Nazism is technically a far-left position: national socialism.) I used to lean politically Left but the Left no longer represents me, a working-poor individual who is just fine with his natural-born gender. Living in America, the only time I’ve gotten financial assistance, no strings attached, from the government has been from two Republican presidents: Dubya and Trump. The Left, once a champion of the working class and poverty-experiencing, is now a tool of liberal elite who seem unhealthily obsessed with gender-confused people, sanitizing/erasing history, and “saving” a world that is clearly beyond saving (thus Zizek advises an apocalyptic mindset). The Left has alienated me, simply. Conservatism, although it’s mutated over the years, is basically doing and calling for what it always has. So neither Zizek nor the political Right have lost the plot. Melanie Zelle has lost the plot, perhaps because she once thought she knew the plot to begin with. If you were once-happy with Zizek as a spokesperson for your politics, you never truly understand him, or philosophy in general. The thing she gets right is a brief comparison of Zizek to Diogenes, that early punk philosopher who antagonized Plato’s academy. Philosophers are not representatives of current culture wars, political stances, or violent ideologies. They are tour guides of human thought, taking us through the haunted house that is consciousness and thinking, with all its contradictions and ugly realities. Zizek follows the classic method of following truth where it leads: sometimes it ends up Left, sometimes Right, sometimes anarchist, sometimes Libertarian, and so on (as he likes to say). Trans people make up such a small percentage of the overall population, and are admittedly confused or feeling wronged about their natural gender, so they need time to figure themselves, and the world, out. To hinge one’s love or hate of a philosopher on such a singular issue is ridiculous. Lastly, I read an interesting book once, a true story about a small group of people shipwrecked off Saudi Arabia. However progressive or proto-woke they were, in a crisis situation, the author noticed how naturally and fluidly they fell into traditional gender roles: the men provided protection and hunted, and the women stayed at the shipwreck, the hearth. Since humanity is experiencing converging, multiple crises (and I don’t thinknthe trans debate is truly a crisis) as Zizek has noted, maybe what’s needed, as conservatives argue, is a return to traditionalism in order to get through. I also don’t think someone who flippantly changes their pronoun or even gender, say a woman to man, knows what it’s like to be a natural-born man: registering for Selective Service, a pressure to work and provide for a family, an expectation to be strong and silent and suppressive of feelings, etc. I do hope Melanie continues to be open-minded and open-hearted to Zizek, because he casts a wide net and is of great value to society. But if she wants to cancel him over a trendy hot button issue, well, she’d be in a crowded bandwagon. I am going to stay in Zizek’s corner, even though I disagree with him on issues both small and large.
Great Reply except this:
“maybe what’s needed, as conservatives argue, is a return to traditionalism in order to get through.”
Zizek argues that there is no going back.