Review of Slavoj Zizek’s Against the Double Blackmail

Žižek, Slavoj, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.55-8.


Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours
Slavoj Žižek
London: Allen Lane, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-241-27884-0
117 pp.

In the inside back cover of this new book by the irrepressible Slavoj Žižek, the author is described as ‘a Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist.’ He makes full use of all three of these aspects in this slender volume on the challenges surrounding the flow of refugees aiming to reach Europe from war-torn countries in Asia and Europe. The first of these is the political aspect (Marx is not noted on the back cover but his influence soon makes an entrance nonetheless). Žižek draws on Fredric Jameson’s concept of the lack of ‘cognitive mapping’ to suggest why it is difficult for people to understand their relationship with the rest of the world and that, of course, is because of the immanence of late capitalism which dictates the conditions of life but in a way that remains invisible to those who lack the ideological vocabulary to identify the contours of class struggle in the symptoms of apparent chaos all around. This inability to identify the problem has led to the rise of supposed maverick outsider politicians, the riots without demands in Paris and elsewhere and the outbreak of sexual violence in India. The same of course is true of the reception of the refuges. Citing (as he often does) Peter Sloterdijk, he observes that “… capitalist globalization stands not only for openness and conquest, but also for the idea of a self-enclosed globe separating its privileged Inside from its Outside (pp.15-6).” The refugee, like the economic migrant, short-circuits capitalist globalization by seeking to move from the peripheral Outside to the core Inside. In this context, the refugees are worse than the migrants because (particularly when young and vulnerable) they come shaking their gory locks and force us to face the consequences of what we (of Europe and of the west) have done in history and what is now being done in our name.

Here Žižek adds the Lacanian aspect of his approach (while Hegelian dialectics form part of the very fibre of his discourse) by considering the importance of the ability of people to be able to tolerate others. This is a theme he has considered before – to be honest, he writes so much and publishes so often that there is not always very much in any of his books which could not have been found in some other part of his oeuvre. He refers to Freud: “Since a Neighbour is, as Freud suspected long ago, primarily a Thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of jouissance materialized in its social practice and rituals) disturbs us and, when the Neighbour comes too close, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, this can also give rise to an aggressive reaction aimed at getting rid of this disturbing intruder (p.74).” The Lacanian term jouissance refers to “… excessive pleasure coinciding with pain (p.75).” Pleasure and pain are defined on an individual basis: the ascetic or forest monk who lives outside society in poverty actually does so, it can be argued, because that is how pleasure appears to such a person and the pain involves not so much the physical deprivations as the self-knowledge that the purpose of asceticism is actually to gain that pleasure. We human beings all live together in communities of different sorts and our communal forms of jouissance have evolved to enable life to continue in a way we consider to be normal but when we are faced with an alternative form, unless we have the relevant cognitive mapping available, we may well reject this “ex-timate intruder (p.75)” with disgust. This is one reason why the maintainers of capitalist globalization are so opposed to any form of internationalism and regularly denounce the Others, whoever they might be, as threats to our way of life, our standard of living (they steal jobs and welfare payments) and our personal property (which for many people continues to include women).

However, Žižek does not just stop there with the implicit conclusion that if only, as so many t-shirts have it, we could live in “a world without strangers) then we could all just get to know each other and live together peaceably (i.e. 42). Instead, we should recognise that those we might consider to be Other can still behave very badly, as the sexual abuse of young white girls in Rotherham by ethnic Pakistani men and the large-scale incidences of sexual assaults in German cities by migrants and refugees demonstrates. Here Žižek likens these activities to those of paedophile Roman Catholic priests (which is one of the reasons he has so many enemies) and argues that (pp.31-3) it is the very nature of the institution of which they are a part that makes the men behave in the way they do: “One can well imagine a non-paedophile priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an ‘institutional unconscious’ designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution (p.32).” This argument, which flows from his Hegelian-Lacanian approach combined with the pessimism of the intellect characteristic of Marxist thinkers, will outrage many. This is perhaps part of the point of it all but there is no doubt that Žižek constructs his arguments with integrity as well as his customary broad humour. However, just as soon as he reaches one conclusion he is skipping away at an apparent tangent to search for quite a different one. He is best challenged, I would say – for those who wish to challenge him – in terms of his method rather than his assertions.

Having said which, there is some concern in my mind about his use of data and references. He does seem to rely too much on a thin number of sources for the data to support his wide-ranging subjects. Most references used in this book are online and, while that is not in itself problematic, quite often it is a single newspaper story that fuels an entire argument. Certainly he writes with great rapidity and in extraordinary profusion but a watchful editor might perhaps have required a little more justification. Still, the pleasure is in the breathless journey.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University



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