For anyone looking for the most unvarnished reporting out of Egypt, Al Jazeera’s website has been the place to go. Last week they hosted Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and critical theorist noted for his Hegelian, Marxist and Lacanian work, who spoke at length on the Egyptian revolution and the West’s predictable response. This should have been played on all major networks.
Slavoj Žižek is a divisive figure in the field of psychoanalytic theory, drawing both praise and criticism for his interpretation of Jacque Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis. Žižek looks something like Peter Jackson circa the filming of “Lord of the Rings” and speaks in a Slovanian accent with the intensity of the Tazmanian Devil. In fact, Žižek is just as likely to drop a Looney Tunes reference in an interview or book as he is in applying Lacanian or Marxist thought to a subject.
Aside from his social and political theory, Žižek has contributed to film theory through reviews as well as books such as “The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory.” Žižek has also incorporated James Joyce into his theory and asked the question “Is there a proper way to remake a Hitchcock Film?” and answered it in an article.
Žižek critics make the critical mistake of lamenting, “Well, he doesn’t offer a unified system of thought!” Does every thinker need a system of thought? That’s not Žižek’s game.
He is not trying to intellectually browbeat people into submission, but to radically shift any willing person’s way of thinking who comes into contact with his material. In that sense, he shares something with other thinkers (and activists) like Guy Debord or the team of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose book “A Thousand Plateaus,” with its conceptual conceit of human intellect and experience as a rhizome, seems almost like the French mirror of Žižek’s mind.
For these philosophers, a radical rebuilding of civilization requires an equally radical shift in thought. That we have been provided a horribly inadequate education makes the material written by Žižek or Deleuze often times hard to follow, thereby silently and very effectively reinforcing the status quo. If we’d been taught from a young age to think in radically different ways, instead of the cliched variant of the heard-many-times “think outside the box” (while we are kept firmly inside the four walls), we’d quite easily follow Žižek.
If we had a world thinking on that wavelength, how different would it be?
But, while Žižek is quite often thought-provoking and inspiring, he should not be endorsed unconditionally (who could be?). Nevertheless, as a personality who can shift people into a radical reconfiguration of thought, presently he has very few equals.
And so it was great to see Žižek appear along with Tariq Ramadan on Riz Khan’s Al Jazeera show. And while Ramadan certainly deserves mention in this piece, I will concentrate on Žižek’s comments, only to highlight what a non-Muslim sees in the Egyptian revolution. Žižek attempts to lay bear what is happening for the Egyptians and the West, cleansing the revolution of the West’s very subtle propaganda.
The host filling in for Khan noted that Tony Blair felt the West needs to “manage” Egypt and the transition—this being born out of the West’s position of fear.
“I think that [Blair's] message was, if one can read between the lines, quite unambiguous… What they want is some changes that would allow the global situation to stay the same… You know how often in our multicultural era, where we’re all suspicious of universalism, we like to hear how democracy as we understand it is something specifically Western.
But, what affected me tremendously when I was not only looking at the general picture of Cairo, but listening to interviews with participants, protesters there, is how cheap, irrelevant all this multicultural talk becomes. There, where we are fighting a tyrant, we are all universalists. We are immediately solidary with each other. That’s how you build universal solidarity, not with some stupid Unesco multicutural respect. It’s the struggle for freedom. Here we have a direct proof that a) freedom is universal, and b) especially, proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religiously fundamentalist dictatorship.”
And so, for Žižek, and indeed for myself, the Western line exemplified by Blair but also by our own President, that the revolution must be managed, is particularly offensive. Especially given that the Western powers have propped up Mubarak’s regime with billions of dollars in financial support, but also diplomatic support, even as his people were denied basic human rights and economic justice.
What Žižek hints at but does not explicitly state in the interview (though certainly not out of any fear) is that the Western desire to manage the Egyptian revolution is born not out of a concern for the Egyptian people, but out of a great fear of the political wildfire spreading to Europe and then across the Atlantic.
Žižek ends his first monologue with the thought that the clash of civilization theory spread by Western governments is essentially fabricated. Žižek states, and quite rightly, “The moment we fight tyranny, we are solidary. No clash of civilizations. We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here.”
And many commendations to the host for mentioning the fact that if we are to worry about radical Islam rising out of these revolutions, shouldn’t the discussion really begin with a country like Saudi Arabia, where people can be executed for witchcraft and sorcery? And, yet, that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from inking a $60 billion arms deal with the Saudi monarchy. The host feels that this marks the West’s fear of radical Islam as insincere. A critical point, indeed, because the real fear here is the people rising up against their own government.
Žižek goes on to say that religious fundamentalism fills the void left by a disappearance of the left—that is, the radical left that is currently revolting in Egypt, for example. He cites Afghanistan as a prime example of a country that was secular but religiously radicalized. Read up on Afghanistan history and watch this radicalization unfold as the U.S. government finances, trains and arms the Mujahideen, paving the way for the ascendancy of the Taliban, which the U.S. then had to topple after 9/11.
This has convinced Žižek that “it is crucial to have a strong left. Only this can save us.”
But, don’t take my word for it, watch the interview below for a very enlightening 25 minutes.