On the Multiculturalism/Zizek debate

I put off writing this because I had already got the subject out of my system, but it has returned and it’s very difficult to ignore: it is the question of multiculturalism, and more specifically what this means to anti-fascists.

Richard Seymour recently produced a blog entry about philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to critically analyse violence and provocation carried out against the Strojan family – an extended family of 31 Gypsies, 14 of them children.

Seymour’s beef is with two things: firstly the outcome of the events, which culminated in the police succumbing to pressure by violent mobs and forcing the family to leave, who, as he notes, had they not “driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades.”

The second thing Seymour has beef about is Zizek’s poor research on the matter. Zizek has used this example to underline his own controversial view of multiculturalism (more of which in a moment) but what he has failed to do is properly understand what happened to the family. As Seymour says in a reply to critics of the aforementioned entry:

I find no evidence that the Strojan family are car thieves, and they didn’t murder anyone. It is true that locals blamed the Strojan family for a number of thefts, but it’s also true that they acknowledge when pressed that the Strojans have been scapegoated on this issue.

I’m with Seymour here; had Zizek done his homework, he would’ve seen that this is a case of scapegoating, or at best a heavy-handed response to petite-theft among some individuals of a family, perhaps spurred on because of the family’s racial background. Zizek here is not being racist, he has just erroneously placed this disgraceful event in the wrong context; by implication I feel that Zizek’s “apologia for anti-Roma racism” is due to a misjudgement by the Slovenian.


As it happens I find Zizek’s critique of multiculturalism very useful (which is why one can agree with Seymour on this issue, and still be in defence of Slavoj Zizek, so to speak). I will attempt to place it in its correct context.

Multiculturalism, according to Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, has come to be defined as a policy promoting diversity among a society of people with fixed identities, partly as a reaction to inharmonious feeling at a time of increased immigration into the UK. For Malik this has simultaneously become the problem and solution to intolerance. While it rather nobly aims to celebrate difference, it also rather crudely pigeon-holes people, on account of their racial or national heritage.

In trying to effect “respect for pluralism [and] avowal of identity politics” – which have come to be “hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook” – segregation has simply become institutionalised.

As a consequence to the respect agenda, all cultures have become of equal value, which may mean that in purely multicultural terms everything is permissible if it can be justified on the grounds of cultural heritage – which leads to the question who can authoritatively account for what a cultural trait is (for Malik, such policies in the eighties served only to strengthen conservative Muslim leaders in Birmingham, on the daft assumption that they alone could authoritatively account for what Islam is).

For Zizek, there is a bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism that is repulsed by (far) right wing populism of the Other (the immigrant for example) to the extent that it starts to fetishise the Other. Not content with opposing all racism directed at this Other, it starts to think the Other can do no wrong. Take as an example the song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” often sung by Julius Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League; the real anti-racist would oppose this song in spite of its historical context, for whatever the white farmers’ crimes during the apartheid, this is a song that is derogatory towards a race. The bourgeois liberal fetishist, of the ilk to which Zizek refers, may justify singing the song on the grounds that such retaliation is historically justified (you could perhaps ascribe to this the notion of “white guilt”).

For Zizek, the bourgeois liberal justifying Malema singing the song is akin to expressing the belief that Melama knows no better, leading Zizek to assert that certain modes of politically correct tolerance of the Other is grounded upon the belief that certain groups can be judged differently (which is why the BNP for example are wrong for being racist populists, but Malema is clear on the grounds that he has experienced racism himself). This ends up being monoculturalism based upon a rather stereotypical ideal of how the Other should act – the point being that the bourgeois liberal, for Zizek, is deluding himself by thinking he is a mutliculturalist, since it is almost a colonial understanding of the foreign Other who he is identifying.

In short, this notion of multiculturalism masks a racist idea of the Other who needs to be “tolerated” (for more on this see Naadir Jeewa’s excellent analysis).

The confusion here lies in who we identify as this bourgeois liberal, naïve apologist? For many people who subscribe to multiculturalism this simply doesn’t resonate. For me, Zizek’s analysis is less a critique of multiculturalism, and more a critique of naïve, neo-colonial monoculturalism (which I assume he is well aware of, though if not, we ought to understand that the bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism is not necessarily inherent to multiculturalism proper). But maybe the word multiculturalism lends itself too easily to the idea that cultural relativism is appropriate– since we’re immediately in a struggle to identify what we can call culture (authority on which, as Malik explains, can often fall into the wrong hands).

When most people support multiculturalism, what they mean is that a country ought not to have a dominant national character immigrants are obliged to adopt as a guarantee of their debt to their new homeland. Instead a country should allow all to practice what they wish, as they wish, provided that it doesn’t harm anyone. Perhaps I’ll adopt the term socialist universalism?


In defence of Wagner’s Israeli enthusiasts

Imagine a history rewritten: would it be a victory for the Nazis if they were forced to live side by side with the Jews they most vehemently disliked? Of course it wouldn’t be, and though it upsets and astounds me that today I have to share oxygen with people who hold views so unpalatable it makes me wince, part of my support for multiculturalism is heightened in the knowledge that we live in a society where to be law abiding means respecting people of cultures and sharing experiences together; and there is not a thing racists of any colour can do about it.

I think about this today, as I see news of outrage that an Israeli orchestra should be able to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner.

The great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, will now have to cancel her visit – which she said was an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

According to a report in The Guardian, Holocaust survivor groups are saying “it was inexplicable that the orchestra would break a decades’ old unofficial boycott to perform music by Hitler’s favourite composer, who also held antisemitic views”.

Furthermore, Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, on the topic of the boycott, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It’s a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us.”

Far be it for me to disagree with holocaust survivors; so I’ll quote from two of our most loved media figures: Stephen Fry and Slavoj Zizek.

Fry recently gave a question and answer session at the Wagner Society following the showing of his film Wagner and Me where he said: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

My point about the Nazis living side by side with the Jews relates very closely to Fry’s point; that Hitler appreciated Wagner should not stop Jews from appreciating Wagner too – and certainly not at the order of certain Israelis – as this only serves to divide those able to enjoy good art. But further still, as Wagner was an anti-Semite himself, nothing should please us more that orchestral representatives of the Jewish state make steps to end the taboo which allows Nazis to define how the world looks at Wagner.

In a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”. To this end, Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

Zizek claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to, regardless of race, if not for the reason that he would’ve disliked this himself.

Popular culture and social decay

Despite Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to show the intellectual qualities of popular culture, be that the Marxian fervour in Hitchcock’s The Birds or the demonstrably Kantian bent in Antz, there is still much ill-feeling towards it.

Other Marxists, more in tune with early Frederic Jameson or Stuart Hall may even think of cultural oppression or something akin to the hyperdermic syringe model to explain how popular culture is a way in which the hegemons of society transmit the dominant ideology to an audience at its beck and call.

For those batting in the Tipper Gore court may see popular culture as a form which has increased social decay by being too sexualised and violent – the reason Gore set up the Parents Music Resource Center, taking exception to a Prince lyric which mused on the following:

I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine

I remember very well the product of Gore’s campaign – that being the parental guidance sticker – and being denied a lot of good music on the grounds that it was deemed uncouth for a parent to buy such filth (though I learnt to unpeel the stickers before presenting the tape to an unsuspecting Mum – that was before they started to print them on the sleeve themselves. Rats!).

There is the even more extreme, and utterly disgusting position of asserting that MTV is black propaganda, made by those on the very far right, particularly a record label called Resistance Records whose warehouse manager once claimed to purchase the mailing lists of teenagers who subscribed to skateboard and heavy metal magazines, in order to send them out neo-nazi sampler tapes, with the intention of having:

a big impact on these kids who would otherwise get into rap

Idealistic, at best.

A less nutty view is that running through certain elements of pop culture today is misogyny, homophobia, and violence. Though with the help of intellectuals such as Cornel West and W.E.B Du Bois, if we dig a little deeper we find that at the heart of this is a reaction, a black masculinity in crisis.

Of course this by no means justifies it, and is even questionable today, certainly many principled feminists will have no truck with trying to accept it on this basis.

Others see MTV’s so-called black culture as not so much the reason for a problematic gang culture, but more futile than that, a culture of gangster wannabes, frustrated and obsessed by a type of image imagined to be that of a gang member (undoubtedly tribal, like football fans can be).

Yes, pop culture gets it in the neck from many different angles. In fact, Rob White, the editor of Film Quarterly, in his recent review of Living in the End Times for The Philosophers’ Magazine, even criticises Zizek for being “too magisterial, too fond of the grandly philosophical and high-cultural”.

But all is not lost. In the same edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine Jean Kazez, who teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and blogs here, recalls concern she had at listening to the music her 13-year-old son listens to.

In an article, which is a more developed than the one she has here, Kazez she confesses to listening to the lyrics of Rhianna and realising the depths of the lyrics, and the strong message it has about love:

that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts

– all the while remembering that only in 2009, Rhianna was famously assaulted by singer Chris Brown.

The realisation that popular culture might be a good medium with which life lessons can be drawn, and not an assault on the consumer subject, nor a product of societal decay.

I recalled an example that I was reminded of when reading Kazez’ piece, where pop music was not merely trash but contained a sound message. I recalled Sugababes’ soung Ugly, the chorus of which is as follows:

People are all the same
And we only get judged by what we do
Personality reflects name
And if I’m ugly then
So are you
So are you

If the hyperdermic syringe is a force for good, then why not utilise it for nice purposes, not commodification. Perhaps Sugababes are an exemplar of this sea change. Or perhaps not, since their wikipedia page informs me that:

Mattel teamed up with the Sugababes to create a new themed Barbie doll collection, which hit stores in May 2007.

And of course, the perfume will be out by christmas too.

Like a suit, perhaps capitalism will remain the lining inside, while on the outside, what counts as popular culture can be more than what its critics have written off as before. Maybe. Hopefully Zizek will keep his watchful eye.

Big Brother goes Lacanian

What is the best thing to say to an audience when you’re a spy? Of course the correct answer is “I’m a spy”. Why on earth would you say you were a spy, when you are a spy, and therefore trying to keep your anonymity. At least, that is what the audience would think, or most likely the connection wouldn’t be made at all. Perfect.

What would you do if you were an Argentinian Minister of Economy when you were in the government palace in Buenos Aires, protestors outside wanted to tear your head off for screwing things right up, and you wanted to get out?

Slavoj Zizek reminds us:

A supreme case of such a comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Domingo Cavallo, the Minister of Economy. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina—the fact that a thing is its own best mask.

Big Brother has also learnt that the thing is its own best mask, with the contestant who dressed as a mole, while simultaneously trying to convince other housemates that he wasn’t a mole. And he succeeded. Instead the other housemates voted Yvette, the medical student, who now thinks everyone hates her.

This was the first I watched of this series, I think I’ve got all the nuances down. Big Brother is Lacanian.

The Lacanian flavour of Dr. Who

The first in a two part series of Dr. Who appeared on BBC1 a moment ago, in which David Tennant manages somehow (who knows) to morph into floppy-haired Matt Smith. Who, here, is met with his old nemesis the Master (John Simm), born again, for Christmas day.

The subject for the episode, and the next, is the end of the world, and I did pick out some rather interesting philosophical elements there, Hegelian in nature too. But it had little to do with Ends, or rather the Hegelian End of History, popularly utilised by Marx and more recently Francis Fukuyama. It had nothing to do with any Christian eschatology – the notion that John Gray manages to utilise as his impetus for conflating radical politics with religious End Time – but actually something more substantial in Hegel’s work, namely the Master.

Without further ado, there is a strict Lacanian correlative in the Hegelian Master, one that needs to be discussed outright in order to emphasise the relevance with which the Master (Dr Who character) has with the Hegelian Master. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the analyst has to conduct himself in such a way as to aim to reveal the analysand’s fantasy, and the way in which to do this is not to act as the absolute knowledge – even though, generally, the analyst is, at least in a clinical context, in other words the analyst has to act as a passive observer, not as the strong knowledge base against the weak, passivity of the analysand. Once this “recongition” of roles has taken place, the revealing of the fantasy can begin, and the ends of psychoanalysis can at least begin to come to fruition.

Now what is significant about the analyst, or master, in this sense? Slavoj Zizek words it thus: he [the analyst] renounces all enforcing (forçage) of reality and, fully aware that the actual is in already itself rational, adopt the stance of a passive observer who does not intervene directly into the content

This is to say that he creates the conditions for which the analysand is said to be most comfortable at revealing, the conduct of the analyst sets this mood as such. Paradoxically, the analyst creates a condition for which s/he is not allowed to direct the flowing or revealing of the analysand, by conducting his or herself in such a manner, the analyst allows for analysand revealing.

What other familiar words could be used to explain the conduct of the analyst? Perhaps a kind of conscious disavowal. The analyst could, if s/he had an agenda or an ax to grind, force the analysand to say what s/he wanted to hear from them, you can imagine it now in a kind of parody, an analyst hearing from the analysand “well, when I was growing up, life was very hard” to which the analyst with their agenda replies “so, your faced severe problems with your Father figure” – this is not the conduct of the Lacanian analyst. But what is further to this conscious disavowal? That the analyst has to not display their similarities to the analysand – this would, too, not be the correct conduct. But why? The analyst, or in this case the Master, is no different, and let us remember the true Hegelian root of this in the Master/Slave dialectic; the Master is only such because the slave recognises this, the slave, also, is only such because the Master recognises this, and in this recongition, and acknowledgement, the two binary codes persist in human ontology.

So if the analyst, or Master, is no different in constitution from the analysand or slave, what does this reveal? That both are constituted equal, in the mirror – as Lacan’s early work would dictate. But, for Lacan, how is the subject constituted? Put simply, as a split subject. More specifically, subjectivity, for Lacan, is born of two things, truth and knowledge; simply put, the truth of something is what exists even in spite of our subjective awareness of it, so, for example, a transcendent God might exist, because of the conditions of its being, the limits in knowledge that a person can have of something that is constitutionally transcendent, renders the truth-realm of it to be unknowable. And this defines knowledge, in the Lacanian sense, which is this proximity to our limits in knowledge. The split, therefore, is in experiencing what Lacan calls the Real – what goes beyond our knowing of something – and knowledge – characterised as that which we can plausibly know.

Further, the subject is a constant bargaining between being-for-others and being the cause of their being. Simply, the subject is both defined by its contrast to an object, and the task of rendering itself a subject, or making oneself an individual, thinking for oneself, choosing for oneself etc. It is these conditions that render the subject in a constant state of split. So, to bring us back to our point, the Master in Dr. Who, becomes everyone – it is quite simply just him – it is, in the strictest Lacanian sense, never just him, because he is always split. The episode, therefore, has stayed true to a Lacanian core: The Master is always a split subject, defined in turn by the other. On this basis, I predict that the next episode will reveal Dr Who and his cohorts defeating the evil, and clearly deluded, Master race.

Reasons to be cheerful

Warning: This will be of limited interest to most and does include some idolatry

In an essay I published with the International Journal of Zizek Studies this year, I mentioned plans by an Iranian car manufacturer to market cars based specifically for women. I said:

another event that caught my eye recently on the matter of Iranian plans for
a car designed specially for a woman. The car producer Iran Khodro have made
plans for the vehicles to be feminine in colour, will feature aids to make parking more
efficient and a jack for easier removal of tyres. For this explicit turn of ideology one is
tempted to be outraged at the sexism and patronisation such plans demand from the
western liberal subject. But this subject is offended only by the explicit ideology, not
the car itself for which such designs are already in existence in the western capitalist
world. What is most unpalatable about the plan is the honesty, where western
capitalism would conceal this sort of dogma under the illusion of a totally free choice.

It just so happens that Zizek himself had as his twitter status on the 2nd of November (which, yes, I follow):

Have you heard about an Iranian company’s plan to market a car specifically for women? Volkswagon’s dream has been stolen away from them.

Could it be possible that I myself have informed Zizek of this? I really rather hope so…

A really late in the day review of Bee Movie (2007)

Bee movie, co-produced by Jerry Seinfeld, gave me ample amount of thinking over the weekend. As much as I enjoyed the cracks, the usual Seinfeld pessimism, the feeling an adult gets when they are watching a film 60% designed for kids, but identify a joke aimed at entirely at adults (that feeling is usual humour, plus the shiver of wisdom and age), for example the joke at the end where the mosquito (voiced by Chris Rock) claims that being lawyer will come easy to him since he is already a blood-sucking parasite, and another joke where on guessing who Barry is in love with, a friend enquires ‘its not a wasp is it, what will your Mother say (one can hardly deny that this sounds to me like a typical Jewish Mother’s concern that her Jewish son has fallen in love with a wasp, that is to say a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)’.

What struck me also, obviously, was the explicit political message of the honey stealing and the corporate lobby. Barry, the bee, on realising that humans are sucking the labour from bees in order to gain profits, exploiting those bees to boot, he takes the local honey firm to court, and after some glorious ups, and far fewer downs, wins the case against the fat-cats (and bears). A platform for anti-capitalist Dreamworks? Hardly likely, consider what Philip French of the Observer wrote about the film at the time;

Winning the case leads to the imminent destruction of the world’s ecology, so Barry must become a hero by putting the bees back to work spreading pollen around the globe 24/7. The message is the old one that ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate, He made them high and lowly and ordered their estate’. With its call to restore the old order and respect the self-sacrificing Stakhanovite, Bee Movie should go down well in Putin’s Russia.

True that what was to follow the court case did little to vindicate Barry’s excellent performance, in fact it brought harm to the eco-system. Not very progressive at all. That is if what goes for progressive these days is a realignment with the old situationist-esque mantra destroy work!

In actual fact what the bee community finds out over the period of the court case is that the value of their labour has only been amassing a surplus for the corporate thief. But what happens when the bees stop working altogether is the same as what would happen if workers of all stripes (not just bee stripes!) stopped working; the stasis of the economy would suffer and go stagnant – haven’t all good economists warned the capitalists of this fact, and is this not why they create what Marx called ‘a reserve army of labour’?

Well luckily in the bee world there is full employment, which means there is a perfect situation, you screw us over, we destroy ecology, the ball is in our court. Of course, being bees, and obviously nice, they don’t leave ecology to become destroyed, they resume work. Perhaps the bees become unionised, perhaps conditions are improved, perhaps there is a colony takeover where the bees run and divide the profits of the honey, we will never know, but in the strictest observance of the analogy, the workers realise the power they have over natural resources, realise that bastards are ripping them off for profit, but that the solution is not to suffer everybody.

And suffer everybody bees can certainly do. On a recent arrival of a mysterious disease, it was starkly remembered that bees help maintain about a third of the human diet by way of insect-pollinated plants. For the bee, providing for the human diet comes at a dark price for the bee’s sexual dignity in that the bee has to perform what is called pseudocopulation, which in basic terms is the attempt at copulation by a male insect (in this case the bee) with a female flower. The bee, attracted to the scent or sight of the flower, may well try to have his end away with it, knowing little or nothing about its being a flower at all. The flower is involved in a matter of deception.

The bee himself is wooed, in the case of the orchid, by the release of osmophores which are identical to the pheromones let-off by the species. Common, too, is the occurrence of visual mimicry in plants where a flower might appear like a sexually receptive female, in the case of the orchid it might appear as female Hymenoptera so as to be inseminated by an unlucky male of this order, only for him to find that he has been duped, probably humiliated and will, no less, carry a stigma (!).

The premise of the film, for kids, is not to be unkind to bees and to respect the lives of all creatures, like Vanessa does. The wider structure of the film surely points out that taking for granted the sum of the workforce may one day come back to haunt those who do.

But about Dreamworks’ intentions, what was it that Nick Cohen said about his rich friends, that they own books by John Pilger, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore etc etc, lets not forget that its fashionable to hold humanitarian views now because they tend not to disturb the true functioning of the economy (see Zizek’s analysis on violence for further details). This could provide some explanation as to why we hate the honey company’s CEO throughout. Or Philip French could be right, the film incidentally did screen better in Russia than it did the UK, but it is a tad bigger in size.