Slavoj Zizek: The Need to Traverse the Fantasy

A call to mobilize Europe’s radical-emancipatory tradition, and why we need a solidarity of struggles, not a “dialogue of cultures”

Slavoj Žižek

Syrian refugees in Vienna are greeted by police on September 4, 2015. (Josh Zakary / flickr)

Adam Kotsko, a professor of humanities at Shimer College in Chicago, in an email to me, provided the best characterization of the reactions to my latest text on the refugees and Paris attacks:

Our solidarity with non-Europeans should be a solidarity of struggles, not a "dialogue of cultures" but a uniting of struggles within each culture.

I notice that the responses always seem to be a referendum on you, almost a Rorschach test for what people think of you. If they think you’re a terrible quasi-fascist, pro-Western ideologue, they find stuff to support that. If they assume you’re in good faith, they can find a more positive reading. But the discussion never gets to the point of actually addressing the issue — it’s almost like what we should do about the issue” is treated as self-evident to all concerned, and the question is whether and how you measure up to this implicit standard (which of course can’t be explicitly stated by anyone).

As for numerous attacks on what I have written, most of them don’t deserve an answer since they simply repeat the position I criticize. What should I say to the claim that I want to use the military to quarantine and throw out the refugees, apart from the fact that it’s a simple lie? Some of the criticism, however, is worthy of reply.

I often hear the reproach that I speak as a European, part of the European elite with whom I am in solidarity, and as such I am treating refugees as an external threat to be contained. To which I can only say: Of course I speak from an European position. To deny this would be a preposterous lie, an unmistakable sign of patronizing fake solidarity.

But which European position? In the same way that there is no one Islam, that Islam also can harbor emancipatory potentials (and I’ve written about this extensively ), European tradition is also marked by a series of deep antagonisms. The only way to effectively fight Eurocentrism” is from within, mobilizing Europe’s radical-emancipatory tradition. In short, our solidarity with non-Europeans should be a solidarity of struggles, not a dialogue of cultures” but a uniting of struggles within each culture.

Merkel’s invitation to accept the refugees — more refugees than any other Euruoean state — was a genuine ethical miracle, one that cannot be reduced to the capitalist strategy of importing cheap labor force. What I find more than a little bit weird is the eagerness to criticize Germany for not showing enough openness toward the refugees instead of focusing on those states that adopt the paraoniac anti-immigrant attitude: Poland, Hungary, etc. It’s the same old superego logic; the more we obey the commandment of the law, the more we are guilty. The more Germany acts in a (relatively) decent way, the more it will be criticized. On the top of that, it is deeply symptomatic of our hypocrisy how rarely the European Left insists that the way to defuse the racist fear of refugees is to include refugees in the public debate. Our TV stations and other public media should have been full of refugees describing their plea, talking about their expectations, etc. One should give them the space to speak in public, not just speak on their behalf.

Another often-repeated reproach targets my mention of Western values” and way of life”: How dare I ignore the blatant fact that Western values” are for the Third World people the very ideology that justifies their colonization and exploitation, the ruthless destruction of their ways of life? My answer is that I am far from ignoring it—I’ve written pages and pages on it. What I insist upon is that, in the same way that Islam does not designate one big homogeneous entity, European tradition also provides the resources for radical emancipation, i.e., for the radical self-critique of Eurocentrism,” while calls for a return to some pre-colonial indigenous roots mostly fit perfectly global capitalism.

A more refined version of this reproach points out that egalitarianism, feminism, etc., are not simply part of Western core values but the result of a long struggle against the hegemonic ideology and politics of capitalism. It maintains that the freedom of press, of public speech, etc., is not an ingredient of liberal capitalist societies that arose spontaneously: it was hard won through popular struggles throughout 19th century. When the West boasts of its emancipatory values, one should always bear in mind that we are largely dealing with the logic of if you can’t defeat them, join them.” I cannot but agree with this point, adding that the same struggle goes on today (Wikileaks, etc.).

The last point. In public debates on many campuses from London to Berlin, I am repeatedly told that now is not the time to raise the topic of the incompatibility of ways of life, of the status of women in some immigrant communities, etc. — that now we are dealing with a big humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands are fighting for their life, and to bring in cultural issues ultimately just detracts from the key issue. I totally disagree with this logic: It is precisely now, when hundreds of thousands are ariving into Europe, that we should talk about all this and elaborate a formula of how to deal with it.

The reason is not merely that only such a direct approach can help to defuse anti-immigrant paranoia, but a much more ominous fact: Sexuality has emerged as one of the central ingredients of today’s ideologico-political struggles.

Let’s take the Nigerian Boko Haram movement, the name which can be roughly and descriptively translated as Western education is forbidden” — meaning, in particular, any education of women. How, then, to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main programmatic item is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the two sexes?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made clear decades ago why an attack like the Paris bombings that focuses on the dissolute” every day amusements can be considered appropriate. In February 1979, on his return to the Islamic Republic of Iran he said, We’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is invasion by western immorality.” The fact that Khomeini talks about fear, about what a Muslim should fear most in the West, should be taken literally: Muslim fundamentalists, be they Shiite or Sunni, do not have any problems with the brutality of economic and military struggles, their true enemy is not the Western economic neocolonialism and military aggressiveness but its immoral” culture.

The same holds for Putin’s Russia, where the conservative nationalists define their conflict with the West as cultural, in the last resort focused on sexual difference: apropos the victory of the Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst (a.k.a. Tom Neuwirth) at the 2014 Eurovision contest, Putin himself said at a dinner in St. Petersburg: The Bible talks about the two genders, man and woman, and the main purpose of union between them is to produce children.” As usual, the rabid nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a member of parliament, was more outspoken. He called her victory the end of Europe,” saying: There is no limit to our outrage. … There are no more men or women in Europe, just it.” Vice prime minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that the Eurovision result showed supporters of European integration their European future — a bearded girl.”

There is a certain quasi-poetic uncanny beauty in this image of the bearded lady (for long time the standard feature of circus freakshows) as the symbol of united Europe — no wonder Russia refused to transmit the Eurovision contest to its TV public, with calls for a renewed cultural Cold War. Note the same logic as in Khomeini: not army or economy, the truly feared object is immoral depravity, the threat to sexual difference. Boko Haram just brought brings this logic to its endpoint.

What psychoanalysis tells us

One should not underestimate the complexity and persistence of different ways of life,” and here psychoanalysis can be of some help. Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence?

The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.

The ultimate incompatibility is not between mine and other’s jouissance, but between myself and my own jouissance, which forever remains an ex-timate intruder. It is to resolve this deadlock that the subject projects the core of its jouissance onto an Other, attributing to this Other full access to a consistent jouissance. Such a constellation cannot but give rise to jealousy: In jealousy, the subject creates/​imagines a paradise (a utopia of full jouissance) from which he is excluded.

The same definition applies to what one can call political jealousy, from the anti-Semitic fantasies about the mysterious practices and abilities of the Jews (which sometimes reach the level of madness, like the claim that Jewish men also menstruate) to the Christian fundamentalists’ fantasies about the weird sexual practices of gays and lesbians. As Klaus Theweleit, a scholar of fascist sociology, pointed out, it is all too easy to read such phenomena as mere projections”: Jealousy can be quite real and well-founded; other people can and do have as much more intense sexual life than the jealous subject — a fact that, as Lacan remarked, doesn’t make jealousy any less pathological. Here is Lacan’s succinct description of the political dimension of this predicament:

With our jouissance going off track, only the Other is able to mark its position, but only in so far as we are separated from this Other. Whence certain fantasies – unheard of before the melting pot. Leaving the Other to his own mode of jouissance, that would only be possible by not imposing our own on him, by not thinking of him as underdeveloped.

To recapitulate the argument: Due to our impasse with our own jouissance, the only way for us to imagine a consistent jouissance is to conceive it as the Other’s jouissance; however, the Other’s jouissance is by definition experienced as a threat to our identity, as something to be rejected, destroyed even.

With regard to the identity of an ethnic group, this means that there is always, in any human community, a rejection of an inassimilable jouissance, which forms the mainspring of a possible barbarism.” Here, Lacan underpins Freud, for whom the social bond (group identification) is mediated by the identification of each of its members with the figure of a Leader shared by all: Lacan conceives this symbolic identification with a Master-Signifier as secondary to some preceding rejection of jouissance, which is why, for him, the founding crime is not the murder of the father, but the will to murder he who embodies the jouissance that I reject.” (And, one might add, even the murder of the primordial father is grounded in the hatred of his excessive jouissance, his possessing of all women.)

The starting point, what I immediately see,” is that I don’t know who or what I am since my innermost core of jouissance eludes me. I then identify myself with others who are caught in the same deadlock, and we ground our collective identity not directly in some Master-Signifier but, more fundamentally, in our shared rejection of the Other’s jouissance.

The status of Other’s jouissance is thus deeply ambiguous: It is a threat to my identity, but at the same time my reference to it founds my identity — in short, my identity emerges as a defensive reaction to what threatens it, or, as we may say apropos anti-Semitism, what is a Nazi without a Jew?

Hitler allegedly said: We have to kill the Jew within us.” A.B. Yehoshua’s provided an adequate comment to this statement:

This devastating portrayal of the Jew as a kind of amorphous entity that can invade the identity of a non-Jew without his being able to detect or control it stems from the feeling that Jewish identity is extremely flexible, precisely because it is structured like a sort of atom whose core is surrounded by virtual electrons in a changing orbit.

In this sense, Jews are effectively the objet petit a of the Gentiles: what is in Gentiles more than Gentiles themselves,” not another subject that I encounter in front of me but an alien, a foreign intruder, within me, what Lacan called lamella, the amorphous intruder of infinite plasticity, an undead alien” monster who cannot ever be pinned down to a determinate form.

In this sense, Hitler’s statement tells more than it wants to say: Against its intention, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew” in order to maintain their identity. It is thus not only that the Jew is within us” — what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, his identity, is also in the Jew. (And the same holds even for a certain kind of anti-racism. The Politically Correct anti-racism depends on what it fights (or pretends to) — on the first-level racism itself, thus parasitizing its opponent: The PC anti-racism is sustained by the surplus-enjoyment which emerges when the PC-subject triumphantly reveals the hidden racist bias of an apparently neutral statement or gesture.)

Another conclusion to be drawn from this intermingling of jouissances is that racism is always a historical phenomenon: Even if anti-Semitism seems to remain the same through millenia, its inner form changes with every historical rupture. French philosopher Étienne Balibar perspicuously noted that in today’s global capitalism, in which we are all neighbors to each other even if we live far away, the structure of anti-Semitism is in a way globalized: Every other ethnic group perceived as posing a threat to our identities functions as a Jew” did for the anti-Semite. The paradox is that, in our specific historical situation, anti-Semitism is universalized. This universalization reaches its apogee in the unique exceptional fact that even the fervent Zionist themselves construct the figure of the self-hating Jew” along the lines of anti-Semitism.

Why Sam Kriss is wrong

I read with interest Sam Kriss’s reply to me. First off, it was dishonest of him to write:

As Zizek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person …

So what, then, are we to make of his statement that Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms”?

I said no such thing. This is what I wrote:

[F]undamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms.

Do you notice the word that he omitted?

Despite such intellectual sleights of hand, Kriss seemed to engage also with the Lacanian concepts I use, accusing me of misusing them. But then I stumbled upon sentences like the following one: Fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.”

Such sentences are strict nonsense, implying a series of false identifications: objet a as the cause of desire is reduced to its role in fantasy (while Lacan elaborated in detail the status of objet a outside fantasy, as well as modes of desiring which remain after we traverse” the fantasy), fantasy is equated with symptom (while Lacan spent long chapters elaborating their opposition), etc.

Since there is no space here to engage in this explanation (every good introduction to Lacan will do the job), I will limit myself to a passage from Kriss’s reply which condenses his double confusion, theoretical as well as political, culminating in his ridiculous notion of fidelity to a fantasy:

In Lacanian terminology, what Zizek identifies as a fundamental disparity between our’ civilized European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called an asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here — what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

First, the basic premise of Lacan’s theory is that what my critic rather clumsily calls the asymmetry in the symbolic order” does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture: each culture is structured around its particular points of impossibility,” immanent blockades, antagonisms, around its Real.

Second, far from resolving” it, a fantasy obfuscates it, it covers up the antagonism – a classic case: the fantasmatic figure of the Jew in anti-Semitism obfuscates the class antagonism by way of projecting it onto the Jew,” the external cause that disturbs an otherwise harmonious social edifice. The statement If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication.” is thus totally misleading: it implies that each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures. Lacan’s thesis is, on the contrary, that each culture lacks appropriate signifiers” for itself, for its own representation, which is why fantasies are needed to fill in this gap.

And it is here that things get really interesting: these fantasies as a rule concern other cultures. Back to the Nazis: the fantasy of the Jew is a key ingredient of the Nazi identity. The Jew as the enemy allows the anti-Semitic subject to avoid the choice between working class and capital: by blaming the Jew whose plotting foments class warfare, he can advocate the vision of a harmonious society in which work and capital collaborate.

This is also why Julia Kristeva is right in linking the phobic object (the Jew whose plots anti-Semites fear) to the avoidance of a choice: The phobic object is precisely avoidance of choice, it tries as long as possible to maintain the subject far from a decision.”

Does this proposition not hold especially for political phobia? Does the phobic object/​abject, on the fear of which the rightist-populist ideology mobilizes its partisans (the Jew, the immigrant, today in Europe the refugee), not embody a refusal to choose? Choose what? A position in class struggle. The anti-Semitic fetish-figure of the Jew is the last thing a subject sees just before he confronts social antagonism as constitutive of the social body (I paraphrase here Freud’s definition of fetish as the last thing a subject sees before discovering that a woman doesn’t have a penis).

So the first conclusion is that some fantasies at least are bad”: we should definitely not advise the Nazis not to give up their fantasy of a better life (without Jews) but to cling to it for all its worth”… Should we then distinguish between good” and bad” fantasies — say, should we replace racist fantasies with humanist all-inclusive fantasies of global brotherhood and collaboration?

This seems to be the direction of my critic when he writes that the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication” — in short, even if a fantasy is not true, this is all we have to maintain at least a semblance of communication.

But is this really the (political) lesson of Lacan’s psychoanalysis? Is fantasy really the last resort of politics? Is Communism ultimately just a fantasy we should cling to whatever the cost? The least one can say is that Lacan’s theory opens up another way, what one may call a politics of traversing the fantasy: a politics which does not obfuscate social antagonisms but confronts them, a politics which aims not just to realize an impossible dream” but to practice a discourse (social link) which would not be that of a semblance” (Lacan), a discourse which touches/​disturbs the Real. Whatever Lacan is, he is not a post-modernist who claims that all communication is, as Kriss puts it, a semblance.”

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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.
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