Posted by Russell Sbriglia
Happy birthday to renowned philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek! Today’s guest blog post comes from Russell Sbriglia, editor of the new collection Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literature but Were Afraid to Ask Žižek.
Today marks the 68th birthday of Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek. In my recent collection for Duke University Press, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literature but Were Afraid to Ask Žižek, I make the case for Žižek’s relevance for literary studies—a relevance long overshadowed by the work done on Žižek in other fields such as film, media, and cultural studies. On this particular occasion, however, I’d like to make the case for Žižek’s continued relevance as a political thinker. Žižek has come under heavy fire of late for a number of his public positions, most notably those regarding the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
For those well-versed in and sympathetic to Žižek’s work, there is little that is controversial, let alone “conservative,” about these stances. Yet there now seems to be an entire cottage industry devoted to misreading and misinterpreting Žižek.
Consider, for instance, his claim that, were he a U.S. citizen, he would have voted for Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in last year’s election. His point was not to “endorse Trump,” as one article headline ridiculously proclaimed (Žižek has said time and again that Trump is an absolutely vulgar and disgusting figure who represents the decline of public decency), but rather to emphasize that a vote for Clinton would be a vote for the neoliberal status quo. The curious thing is that many of those who excoriated Žižek for taking such a position are the very same people who have long laughed at Francis Fukuyama’s thesis regarding the “end of history.” Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, (in)famously argued that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism, political history had effectively come to an end. From here on out, history would consist of the gradual yet inevitable democratization of the world under the regime of global capitalism. Laugh at Fukuyama though they will, the reaction by many on the left to Žižek’s hypothetical vote for Trump as a means of accelerating the contradictions of late capitalism suggests an implicit confirmation of the Fukuyaman thesis. For a vast majority of liberals, democratic capitalism still remains, as Marcel Gauchet has said of liberal democracy, “l’horizon indépassable,” an impassable horizon. Hence Žižek’s frequent reiteration of Fredric Jameson’s famous line that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Even after Clinton’s Electoral College loss—a loss due in part to the fact that Trump was able to capitalize on the DNC’s sacrifice of Bernie Sanders, filling the vacuum left by Sanders’s democratic socialism with a faux populist nationalism—a number of Democrats seem bent on maintaining the neoliberal status quo. Take, for example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s comments from a CNN Town Hall in late January. Citing a recent Harvard University poll which showed that a majority of people between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the capitalist system, an NYU student asked Pelosi whether she could envision the Democratic Party “mov[ing] farther left to a more populist message” that would make for “a more stark contrast to right-wing economics.” Pelosi’s immediate response was as follows: “Well, I thank you for your question. But I have to say, we’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is.” This is precisely the type of “inertia” that Žižek saw in Clinton, who in attempting to appeal to both Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street ended up running on a platform that was as anodyne as it was amorphous. On this issue in particular, if Žižek is a lost cause, then so are we.
The good news amidst the many horrors of the past two months is that we are now beginning to see signs that perhaps Žižek was correct about Trump mobilizing the left. Though Žižek often quips that the left never likes to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, the numerous women’s marches that were held around the globe the day after Trump took office, the protests at airports across the U.S. following the Trump Administration’s initial Muslim ban, and the fiery Republican town halls at which constituents are voicing (and venting) their concerns over a possible repeal of Obamacare all suggest that a political awakening may very well be underway on the left. If this proves to truly be the case, if the left does indeed have the courage to “resume” history, then we’re going to need Žižek more than ever.