Tuesday, 09 August 2005

Zizek and Utopian Universalism? Maybe? I spent parts of yesterday and today mulling over Jodi's essay on "Zizek and Democracy." First, I want to echo Luther Blissett's remark about the entertainment value of Zizek's thought as Jodi describes it. Its hair-pin turns exhilirate and this quality extends to students of his thought. Take Jodi's account of the implications of Zizek's criticism of identity politics: An example from the U.S. might be Rosa Parks: at issue was not simply her particular seat on a bus or even the racist practices of busses in Montgomery, Alabama. Rather, the laws of segregation, and indeed, the racism of U.S. law most broadly, of U.S. willingness to enforce a system of apartheid, were at stake. One can imagine what could have occurred should the therapeutic and particularized practices of institutionalized identity politics have been in place: Rosa Parks would have discussed her feelings about being discriminated against; the bus driver would have dealt with his racism, explaining that he had been brought up that way; and, perhaps there would have been a settlement enabling Parks to ride at a discounted fare on weekends and holidays. Maybe the two would have appeared together on a television talk-show, the host urging each to understand and respect the opinion of the other. Ultimately, the entire situation would have been seen as about Park’s specific experience rather than about legalized segregation more generally. Zizek's claim that identity politics, to paraphrase Jodi, eliminate the possibility for systemic change by reformulating systemic problems as personal issues strikes me as fundamentally correct. Then again, I came to the essay already believing that identity politics often trivialize concepts of social justice by subordinating them to an ethos of personal expression, so the nodding of my head in assent as I read those passages didn't shock. My major difficulty with the essay can be guessed by anyone who knows my feelings about psychoanalysis. Zizek relies on a psychoanalytic model of human and social development that I think profoundly misguided. From what I can tell, psychoanalytic concepts function for Zizek as both philosophical truisms (capable of standing toe-to-toe with the categorical imperative) and psychological fact. Reading this unnerves me. Just as I nodded in assent with his account of the identity politics without surprise, however, I also shook my head in dissent without shock. I knew coming into the essay that I would find that part of his argument unconvincing. That said, I do have some questions and criticisms for Jodi about the essay. Some of them derive from my ignorance of Zizekian thought, others from my ignorance of political science. One or two may be the product something other than ignorance. In other words, consider every claim below prefaced by an invisible "I think I think that." The criticisms first: Zizek strikes me as a profoundly utopian thinker. I understand that he fashions himself as such because he sees a lack of viable alternatives within democracy or capitalism (on which more shortly), but he never offers anything but suggestions...

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