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Žižek on Reflexive Racism

In The Fragile Abolute, Slavoj Žižek opens his book with a discussion about how to best encapsulate the “gist of an epoch.”  He argues that to understand the cultural-political reality of a particular time and place we must look, not so much at the explicit features that define the “social and ideological edifices” of that cultural formation, but rather for the “disavowed ghosts that haunt it”.  The example of this he turns to is the “Balkan ghost”, the way in which the people of the former Yugoslavia are seen from the perspective of the rest of Europe.  For all the various countries in Europe, “the Balkans” constitute the “barbarian Other”, encoding an ideological antagonism into the fabric of European consciousness which embodies a particularly modern form of racism.

The ghost of “the Balkans” ultimately has nothing to do with geography, but rather with a sort of “imaginary cartography” which reflexively attributes to the people of the Balkans a “terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational warring passions, to be opposed to the post-nation-state-liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiation, compromise and mutual respect.”  This what Žižek calls “reflexive racism” in which racism is actually “attributed to the Other, while we occupy the convenient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on ‘down there’.”

Thus, as the benevolent liberal observers, the European consciousness feels no dissonance in attributing things to “them” that are obviously racist, while simultaneously attributing racism to the Other.  What Žižek observes about this dynamic is the way in which it moves the locus of social conflict in the world from class struggles to the “multiculturalist problematic of the ‘intolerance of Otherness’”.  Žižek argues, by contrast that the answer to the problem of ethnic hatred is not through its “immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance“; rather, “what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred: hatred directed at the common political enemy.”  For Žižek, of course, this “common political enemy” is capitalism.  However, one wonders how such greater hatred can avoid being sublimated into the machinations of the ubiquitous order of global capitalism.  Regardless, however, the call for greater hatred, rather than bourgeois exhortations to tolerance and liberal sentimentality is at least interesting, something the platitudes of liberalism definitely are not.

One Comment

  1. dan wrote:

    I agree, it is quite interesting.

    I reckon there is at least one way in which such hatred could avoid being sublimated — it could fail and get itself killed off. Here I am reminded of the hatred Guevara spoke of — the hatred that he thought love required. Of course, Guevara’s image has now been well marketed, but Guevara himself seemed to manage to avoid such sublimation.

    However, I think the point you make is a good one. Personally, if I wasn’t convinced that violence ends up only driving us further into a downward spiral, then I don’t know if I would be able to resist that temptation. Ultimately, I think significant changes only appear to come from two sources: the Holy Spirit and violence — I’m just not convinced that the significant change that violence brings is all that good or, in the end, is all that significant.

    Sunday, February 24, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

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