Why Slavoj Zizek Is Wrong About the Syrian Refugee Crisis—And Psychoanalysis

A response to Zizek’s recent In These Times piece.

Sam Kriss

(CAFOD / Flickr)

Yes­ter­day, Slavoj Zizek respond­ed to my ear­li­er cri­tique of his dis­cus­sion of the migrant cri­sis. There are a few strange moments in his piece — I’ve nev­er before read any­one refer to a hoax bril­liant­ly per­formed by [the] Dai­ly Cur­rant“ — but the essay is most­ly dom­i­nat­ed by a famil­iar dis­cus­sion of the antin­o­mies of lib­er­al tol­er­ance. Zizek has made a name for him­self by brave­ly chal­leng­ing left­ist dog­mas on the mer­its of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, with a cri­tique so puck­ish and dev­as­tat­ing that, as many peo­ple have point­ed out, it’s vir­tu­al­ly indis­tin­guish­able from overt right-wing nativism.

There is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism. But rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, Zizek only reproduces its worst aspects.

I’m not going to repeat this argu­ment — in fact, I agree with Zizek: there is some­thing deeply wrong with the log­ic of lib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. But rather than sub­ject­ing it to any seri­ous cri­tique, he only repro­duces its worst aspects.

To bor­row a phrase of which he’s fond, his crit­i­cism is only the obverse of its object. Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is a pro­found­ly anti­hu­man­ist dis­course: its basic unit is not the dis­tinct and indi­vid­ual sub­ject but the dis­tinct and indi­vid­ual cul­ture. And while there’s a case to be made for anti­hu­man­ism — as Marx­ists and Freudi­ans know, the indi­vid­ual sub­ject isn’t an orig­i­nary Dem­ocritean atom but some­thing con­struct­ed — any dis­course that takes cul­ture rather than class (or even race, sex­u­al­i­ty or any of the oth­er axes of oppres­sion) as its basic unit strays into murky, fas­coid territory.

Class analy­sis is car­ried out with the goal of abol­ish­ing class alto­geth­er, an anti­hu­man­ism that aims to restore the human; mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism rei­fies and hyposta­sis­es cul­ture into an eter­nal absolute. Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism does not see a per­son who hap­pens to be Mus­lim, it sees Islam embod­ied. While it might call for all (assumed) dif­fer­ences to be respect­ed, the actu­al per­son it address­es is approached only as a sig­ni­fi­er of cul­tur­al difference.

With­in these syn­chron­ic cul­tur­al blocs any inter­nal dif­fer­ence is erased; the fact that these cul­tures or ways of life are abstrac­tions, formed out of a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of real behav­iors, is aban­doned to a mys­ti­cal ide­al­ism. The prop­er term for this kind of approach is racism. 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, but to see them only as an embod­i­ment of Jew-ness, Mus­lim-ness, Roma-ness.

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”? Or when he approv­ing quotes Yevge­ny Grishkovetz, who writes that they [migrants] have no idea of Euro­pean val­ues, lifestyles and tra­di­tions, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism or tol­er­ance”? Or when he says of migrants that that their way of life is incom­pat­i­ble with the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of the West­ern wel­fare-state”? Isn’t the appeal to the nation­al or cul­tur­al way of life as fun­da­men­tal­ly con­sti­tu­tive of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty one that’s gen­er­al­ly made by fas­cists?

Much of this mate­r­i­al is essen­tial­ly a reit­er­a­tion of his ear­li­er essay in the Lon­don Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own mer­its. But his cri­tique of my posi­tion is not just ide­o­log­i­cal­ly sus­pect; it verges on the illiterate.

In dis­cussing my response to his ini­tial argu­ment in the LRB, Zizek zeroes in on a sin­gle par­en­thet­i­cal state­ment, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Nor­way is impos­si­ble, it func­tions as a tran­scen­dent object of desire. It’s strange behav­ior for a Lacan­ian to insist on the unre­al­i­ty of that object and to urge some­one to be more real­is­tic. This is, Zizek writes, sim­ply ridicu­lous, the­o­ret­i­cal nonsense.”

His crit­i­cism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a non­sense out of the the­o­ry, mis­ap­ply­ing and dis­tort­ing Lacan­ian con­cepts, or that I’m indulging in aca­d­e­m­ic obscu­ran­tism, waf­fling on about obscure psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal the­o­ry while the migrants are charg­ing in to destroy our cher­ished Euro­pean way of life. Weird­ly, the lat­ter read­ing appears to be the cor­rect one.

The ide­al migrants hold of a bet­ter life in Europe is not objet petit a, Zizek writes — it’s a fan­ta­sy.” He con­tin­ues: Refugees who want to reach Nor­way present an exem­plary case of ide­o­log­i­cal fan­ta­sy — a fan­ta­sy-for­ma­tion that obfus­cates the inher­ent antag­o­nisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basi­cal­ly expect the best of the West­ern wel­fare-state while retain­ing their spe­cif­ic way of life, though in some of its key fea­tures their way of life is incom­pat­i­ble with the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of the West­ern welfare-state.”

In what sense is the word fan­ta­sy” being deployed here? In gen­er­al, non-the­o­ret­i­cal usage it refers to an imag­ined sce­nario that sim­ply can’t take place: a delud­ed per­son is liv­ing in a fan­ta­sy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin real­i­ty. In this sense, it makes per­fect sense to talk about fan­ta­sy as some­thing that obfus­cates inher­ent antag­o­nisms.” In psy­cho­analy­sis, it would be a con­tra­dic­tion in terms: 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.

Let’s say, for the sake of imma­nence, that Zizek is right, and the good life in Nor­way is not object petit a, an object that is desired but can’t be obtained, but a fan­ta­sy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of oppo­si­tion – the math­eme of fan­ta­sy, $ a, mere­ly rep­re­sents the barred subject’s rela­tion to that object.) In Freud, the fan­ta­sy is inte­gral to sex­u­al life and to life itself. Life, as we find it, is too hard for us … in order to bear it we can­not dis­pense with pal­lia­tive measures.”

While for Freud the fan­tasies are illu­sions in con­trast with real­i­ty,” they remain psy­chi­cal­ly effec­tive.” He com­pares them direct­ly with art and with sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty, both of which are deflec­tions,” but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fan­ta­sy in con­sti­tut­ing the sub­ject and its men­tal life is empha­sized: as Zizek him­self writes else­where, in the oppo­si­tion between dream and real­i­ty, fan­ta­sy lies on the side of reality.”

Lacan’s most famous dic­tum is that il n’y a pas de rap­port sex­uel; fan­ta­sy is the means by which love man­ages to per­sist any­way. The oth­er is always lack­ing, their gaze is always a void, their fig­ure is always the object of a cer­tain ambiva­lence, they can nev­er give you what you want. Fan­ta­sy com­pen­sates for this essen­tial lack in the oth­er; it’s what allows desire for the oth­er to take place despite their inabil­i­ty to ful­fil it. From the Écrits: Fan­ta­sy is the means by which the sub­ject main­tains him­self at the lev­el of his van­ish­ing desire.”

This is not the fan­ta­sy that Zizek is talk­ing about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he nev­er allows his Laca­ni­an­ism to actu­al­ly inflect his pol­i­tics, because the two are not rec­on­cil­able. 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 a 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.

One final point. For decades, Marx­ists have made use of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic the­o­ry; it’s some­times easy to for­get that Freud and Lacan were not them­selves Marx­ists. In The Ques­tion of a Weltan­schau­ung, Freud, the Schopen­hauer­ian pes­simist, dis­miss­es the Marx­ist the­o­ry of his­to­ry as a pre­cip­i­tate of the obscure Hegelian phi­los­o­phy in whose school Marx grad­u­at­ed” and laments that in the Sovi­et Union any crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of Marx­ist the­o­ry is for­bid­den, doubts of its cor­rect­ness are pun­ished in the same way as heresy was once pun­ished by the Catholic church.”

But if he wasn’t a Com­mu­nist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Aus­tria in 1938, Freud escaped to Lon­don, flee­ing those who would have mur­dered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sis­ters died in the con­cen­tra­tion camps.) He remained there until his death, 20 days after the dec­la­ra­tion of war in Sep­tem­ber 1939. The British media of the time was full of famil­iar sen­ti­ments: fear of the tide of Euro­pean Jews com­ing into Britain, rep­re­sent­ed as rats in car­toons, bring­ing with them nasty for­eign dis­eases like rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nism, not respect­ing our way of life.

Did Sig­mund Freud aban­don his Vien­nese way of life” for that of the British Empire? Suc­ces­sive attempts by British gov­ern­ments to define a dis­crete set of British val­ues” have gen­er­al­ly end­ed up pro­duc­ing bland noth­ings, but if we had to iden­ti­fy one absolute­ly cen­tral fea­ture of the nation­al char­ac­ter, it would have to be this: on absolute­ly no account what­so­ev­er are you to talk about sex. Freud con­tin­ued his psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic prac­tice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cul­tur­al injunc­tion he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ances­tors were Jew­ish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Set­tle­ment, their chil­dren may well have been incin­er­at­ed in Auschwitz, and I would have nev­er lived to write these words. But still I’m not con­tent with the sit­u­a­tion we have: as a Marx­ist and a com­mu­nist, I’m com­mit­ted to a dif­fer­ent and bet­ter world, one that does not yet exist.

Call it Nor­way if you want. Zizek, who appears to have aban­doned lib­er­a­tion, might sneer. And this may well be, in the con­ven­tion­al sense of the word, a fan­ta­sy. But it’s still one that absolute­ly must be maintained.

This post first appeared at Idiot Joy Showland. 

Sam Kriss is a writer liv­ing in the Unit­ed King­dom. He blogs at Idiot Joy Show­land. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @sam_kriss.
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