Žižek and liberal multiculturalism

Sara Ahmed has written an interesting piece on Žižek’s critique of liberal multiculturalism on darkmatter:

In his plenary talk at the Law and Critique Conference (2007)1 Slavoj Žižek repeatedly asserted that liberal multiculturalism – and its ‘politically correct’ premise of respecting the other’s difference – is hegemonic. When asked questions about this position from the floor, he stated insistently that it was an ‘empirical fact’ that liberal multiculturalism was hegemonic, and challenged anyone to prove otherwise. I am writing this response as a way of taking up his challenge…continues

My initial response:

I don’t think there is such a significant difference between Sara Ahmed’s astute analysis of liberal multiculturalism and Slavoj Žižek’s critique. In rather simple terms, Žižek would argue that liberal multiculturalism and liberal monoculturalism are two mutually constitutive modalities of contemporary global racism. The more substantial difference, and maybe this is effectively implied in Žižek’s elevation of liberal multiculturalism as being hegemonic, as a critique of liberal-left positions, is what do we do politically – the issue that is rightly raised by Ben Pitcher. Here Žižek’s position is quite clear and consistent – he does not see multiculturalism as a site of hegemonic struggle. There is no progressive form of multiculturalism for him. In fact, by marking it as the master signifier of politics, we end up with contemporary modes of liberal racism, sexism…(i.e. others remain as others to be tolerated, but deprived of their radical Otherness…)

Žižek’s argument is really about the broader ‘cultural turn’ in politics. If we want to hold on to a politics of multiculture then what form does it have to take now? What is the relation between culture and politics? Hasn’t the fantasy been that multiculturalism can articulate particular, at times contradictory and oppositional struggles, into a hegemony of progressive social politics? Does this become impossible when progressive projects such as feminism and anti-racism are themselves how racism and sexism operates? e.g. liberal white feminist critique of Muslim patriarchy becomes the justification for Islamophobia etc. Of course this has always been the challenge (and maybe the limitations) of hegemonic politics but aren’t we now in a situation that the very grounds in which the hegemonic struggle takes place is contained within the contours of liberal-capitalist ‘post-political’ democracy. A space, exemplified by liberal multiculturalism, where differences are allowed but as long as they don’t challenge this order. Culture, in whatever radical constructionist, anti-essentialist way we understand and mobilise it, comfortably operates within and is the predominant ideological form of liberal democracy.

I think this is the challenge Žižek poses – how do we conceive of politics in this context. For him the only universal hegemony is global capitalism and without opposing that all other struggles will be easily incorporated into its logic. In that, even progressive multiculturalism in its form of radical (deconstructive) particularism, is how global power operates. (See Hardt and Negri for example).

Žižek’s position is that instead of struggling over cultural differences in the form of trying to hegemonise the field by creating shared consensus, that to be truly progressively multicultural we need to struggle over what we oppose – a politics of negation. Instead of trying to find common shared elements, we should fight politically and unconditionally over say anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism etc. This does appear to end up as a standard left position. One of the questions to ask is how is culture conceptualised and situated in these struggles. The orthodox left tends to see culture as an ideological problem, as best as form of (nationalist) resistance. Žižek, through his Hegelian-dialectical Lacanism, offers a more complex understanding of culture, subjectivity and ideology that questions conventional representational, as well as immanent materialist, politics. He is advocating a dialectical politics of division and confrontation – we need to take sides and fight for our position. And crucially, the political antagonisms are not between cultures but within and across cultures. Maybe this is a universalism after the (multi)cultural turn?

This entry was posted in multiculturalism, racism, Zizek. Bookmark the permalink.

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