I am not only politically active, but often, as they say, also perceived as politically radioactive. Witness the critical reactions to my writing in these pages. Yet too often, critics of my anti-“woke” stances replicate the very ideological structures that are the target of my polemics. Along the way, they disclose, inadvertently or otherwise, the bankruptcy of the woke left.
The fundamental upshot of these critiques—whether they set out to vindicate #MeToo, racial woke-ism, or contemporary gender ideology—is that criticizing the repressive norms associated with these movements represents a sort of regression, an effort to suppress recent progressive achievements that we neither can nor should wish to “go back behind of.” I disagree—fiercely.
Start with the #MeToo critique. In writing of the movement, I have often quoted Tarana Burke, the founder of the hashtag campaign, to the effect that in the years since the movement began, it deployed an unwavering obsession with the perpetrators—a cyclical circus of accusations, culpability, and indiscretions. As early as 2018, Burke conceded that
we are working diligently so that the popular narrative about MeToo shifts from what it is. We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women, that it’s only for a certain type of person—that it’s for white, cisgender, heterosexual, famous women.
In short, Burke suggested that the struggle should refocus onto the daily suffering of millions of ordinary working women and housewives. Yet some of my critics charge that I advocate a simple move from harassment in our behavior and language to “real” socio-economic problems. They (correctly) point out that the thick texture of behavior and ways of speaking are the very medium of the reproduction of ideology. Plus, they say, what counts as “real problems” is never a matter of direct insight, but always defined by the symbolic network—that is, it is the result of a struggle for hegemony.
But that is exactly what I have spent a career arguing: For decades, I have insisted on the texture of unwritten rules as the medium through which racism and sexism reproduce themselves. Or to put it in more theoretical terms, the big implication of “structuralist” theories (from Lévi-Strauss and Althusser to Lacan) is that ideological superstructure has its own infrastructure, its own (unconscious) network of rules and practices that sustain its functioning. The only meaningful question—or point of real contestation—is whether the new norms actually interrogate and interdict sexism (and other forms of domination), or whether they perversely serve to replicate them. To merely insist that they reach their supposedly liberatory aim is to beg the question—and to betray everything a serious left should be about.
Or take critics who accuse me of seeking to bring back a world in which racial epithets can be flung about with abandon in the name of “freedom.” There is an anecdote I frequently tell concerning the use of the N-word: Once two black friends were so enthusiastic about what I had just said that one of them embraced me and exclaimed, “Now you can call me [N-word]!” Reacting to this, a critic on TikTok claimed that those who agree with me must be “insane”:
The problem here is that Žižek’s argument is premised on his freedom to use racial slurs. Žižek uses the N-word as a stand against political correctness, implying that black people who don’t want you to call them racial slurs are being politically correct. And, therefore, unreasonable. And sure, maybe the guy he was talking to didn’t mind at all. But whether or not you say the N-word as a non-black person should not be based on finding an individual black person who ‘lets’ you say it. It should be based on your understanding of what the word signifies, as a word that was used to directly justify the ownership of one race by … another.
Exactly like a chatbot, my critic is ignoring the obvious context of my example. I didn’t—and never do—use the N-word in communication, and the black guy who told me, “Now you can call me [N-word]!” obviously didn’t mean that I should really do it. This was an expression of friendship, in the spirit of black people using this word among themselves in a friendly way. I am quite sure that if I were really to address him using the epithet, he would—in the best of cases—react angrily, as if I didn’t get the obvious point. My friend’s remark obeyed the logic of “an offer meant to be refused,” like when I say to somebody, “What you did now for me was so nice that you could kill me, and I wouldn’t mind it!” Obviously, I wouldn’t expect such an interlocutor to say, “OK!” and pull out a knife.
But don’t these “problematic” (for some) positions of mine indicate that I have changed my fundamental political orientation over the past decade? A critic of mine recently insisted on the “contrast” between my writings in the 1990s and my “more recent transition into a post-left figure.” He began by approvingly quoting and paraphrasing a passage from my Plague of Fantasies (1997):
If racist attitudes were to be rendered acceptable for the mainstream ideologico-political discourse, this would radically shift the balance of the entire ideological hegemony. … Today, in the face of the emergence of new racism and sexism, the strategy should be to make such enunciations unutterable, so that anyone relying on them automatically disqualifies himself (like, in our universe, those who refer approvingly to fascism). One should emphatically not discuss ‘how many people really died in Auschwitz,’ what are ‘the good aspects of slavery,’ ‘the necessity of cutting down on workers’ collective rights,’ and so on; the position here should be quite unashamedly ‘dogmatic’ and ‘terrorist’; this is not a matter for ‘open, rational, democratic discussion.’
My critic then added his own commentary: “Well said. Much as, for example, one shouldn’t engage in conversations about whether trans women are ‘really’ women.” Doesn’t my willingness to question gender ideology, he went on, bespeak a sort of “ideologico-political ‘regression’” by casting public doubt on the tenets of gender ideology? “Would [I] therefore see [my] older self as a symptom of such regression?”
My counterpoint here is an obvious one: Can we really put woke demands into the series of progressive achievements, so that the changes in our daily language—such as the primacy of plural pronouns, and so on—are just the next step in the long struggle against sexism and other forms of repression? My answer is a resounding No: The changes advocated and enforced by gender and woke ideology are themselves largely “regressive.” They represent the attempts by the reigning ideology to appropriate (and take the critical edge off) new protest movements. Again, these charges don’t stick when they merely amount to begging the question.
Apropos of the ideological appropriation of emancipatory demands, consider Jean-Claude Milner’s claim in a recent essay that what we call “the West” is today a confederation under US hegemony: The United States reigns over us not just economically and militarily, but also intellectually. But here, says Milner, “one has to accept a paradox: The US-American domination in the intellectual domain expresses itself in the discourses of dissent and protest and not in the discourses of order.”
There is a further paradox at work here, however: The US-led West’s mode of ideological discourse—as a protest against now this form of inequality, now that—is self-destructive insofar as it undercuts its own foundation, and is thus unable to present itself as a project for positive global change: “Precisely because the cultural heritage of the West cannot free itself from the inequalities that made its existence possible,” says Milner, “past denouncers of inequality are themselves considered to benefit from one or another previously unrecognized inequality” and “all the revolutionary movements and the notions of the revolution themselves are subject to suspicion now, simply because they belong to the long line of dead white males.”
Therein resides the difference between the Western anti-Western discourse and the anti-Western discourse coming from outside. Writes Milner,
While an anti-Western discourse is deployed within the West (and the West takes pride in this), another anti-Western discourse is held outside of the West. Except that the first takes inequality for a fault, which one does not have the moral right to take advantage of; the second, on the contrary, sees in inequality a virtue, on the condition that it is oriented in one’s favor. Consequently, the proponents of the second anti-Western discourse see the first as an indication of the enemy's decadence. They do not hide their contempt.
And their contempt is fully justified: The result of Western anti-Western discourse is what one might expect. As I have written for Compact, the more Western liberal-leftists probe their own guilt, for example, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites trying to conceal their hatred of Islam. Such a paradigm perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: The more you obey what the pseudo-moral agency demands of you, the more guilty you are: It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be. The same holds true for the influx of refugees: The more Western Europe is open to them, the more it will be made to feel guilty that it failed to accept even more of them—by definition, it can never receive enough of them. The more tolerance one displays toward non-Western ways of life, the more one will be made to feel guilt for not practicing enough tolerance.
Here, the wokester will reply that the non-Western critics are indeed correct: that Western self-humiliation is fake, and that non-Western critics are right to insist that whatever the West concedes to them, it still occupies the dominant position and expects them to integrate—but why should they? The problem, of course, is that what the non-Western critics expect is—to put it brutally and directly—that the West renounce its way of life. The alternatives here are: As the final result of the Western anti-Western critical stance, will the West succeed in destroying itself (socially, economically) as a civilization—or will the West succeed in combining its self-defeating ideology with economic and military superiority?
Milner is right: There is no paradox in the fact that the self-denigrating critical mode is the best ideological stance to ensure that there will be no revolutionary threat to the existing order. However, one should supplement his claim with a renewal of the (fake-but-nonetheless-actual) revolutionary stance of the new populist right: Its entire rhetoric is based on the “revolutionary” claim that the new elites—big corporations, academic and cultural mandarins, governmental agencies—should be destroyed, with violence if needed. Echoing a leftist politician like Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis, the right populists propose a class war against our new feudal masters. Here, a further threat emerges: The worst nightmare is the possibility of a pact between the populist right in the West and anti-Western authoritarians.
To understand all this more clearly, one should overcome the opposition between objective truth and historicist relativism. Indeed, there is a different notion of truth to be mobilized. Most of us know well the culminating moment of A Few Good Men, when Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) addresses Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup, demanding, “I want the truth!” and Nicholson shouts back, “You can’t handle the truth!” This reply is more ambiguous than it may appear: It shouldn’t be taken as simply a claim that most of us are too weak to handle the brutal reality of things.
We have to get rid of the metaphor of the Real as the hard core of reality: the way things “really are in themselves,” accessible to us only through multiple lenses of how we symbolize reality, of how we construct it through our fantasies and cognitive biases. In the opposition between reality (“hard facts”) and fantasies (illusions, symbolic constructs), the Real is on the side of illusions and fantasies: The Real, of course, by definition resists full symbolization, but it is at the same time an excess generated by the process of symbolization itself. Without symbolization, there is no Real—there is just the flat stupidity of what is there.
Another (perhaps the ultimate) example: If someone were to ask a witness about the truth of the Holocaust, and the witness were to reply, “You can’t handle the truth!,” this shouldn’t be understood as a banal claim that most of us aren’t able to process the horror of the Holocaust. At a deeper level, those who weren’t able to handle the truth were the Nazi perpetrators themselves: They weren’t able to handle the truth that their society was traversed by an all-encompassing antagonism, and to avoid this insight, they targeted the Jews, as if killing the Jews on the belief that doing so would re-establish a harmonious social body.
What complicates things even more is that the “truth” evoked by Nicholson isn’t simply the reality of how things stand, but a more precise fact that our power (not just the military) has to follow illegal unwritten rules and practices (the “Code Red” in the film) to sustain its legal system: This is the truth soft liberals aren’t able to handle. Such a notion of truth involves a paradoxical temporal structure. As the thinker Jure Simoniti has argued (in personal communication with me),
traditionally, truth seems to have posed as a regulative idea of a state of direct accord. However, this aspired directness was then compensated with the infinite postponement of achieving it. It is perhaps time to reverse this formula, hence, to conceive truth in the frame of indirectness, and then let it happen fully in the here and now. A mere change of perspective enables us to detect an entirely different ‘life of truth.’ Instead of conceptualizing ‘truth’ as perpetually approximating a certain idealized state of full satisfaction, we will rather shift our attention to the instances of truth emerging actually within a particular historical reality, either inciting events of great magnitude and irreversible temporality, or producing incontrovertible and inextricable knots and excesses in everyday life, or producing unexpected surpluses in the flukes and flaws of speech. Truth seems impossible and is at the same time inevitable; it gives itself the veneer of eluding our grasp, but then crops up abruptly, even accidentally, and engages us in its discursive bindingness, its compulsory and inescapable effects, its political force and historical exigency, and perhaps its logical necessity.
Truth is thus like enjoyment (Jacques-Alain Miller once referred to truth as a younger sister of jouissance): impossible and inevitable at the same time. The worst thing one can do apropos truth is to conceive it as something—an unknown X—that we gradually approach in an infinite process of approximation, without ever reaching it. There is no place for the poetry of lack here, of how we ultimately always miss the final truth. This is emphatically not what Lacan means when he asserts, at the beginning of his late essay Television, that truth can only be half-told: “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: Words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.” We repress truth, it eludes us, but it is always-already here in its effects, as half-said—say, as a symptom that undermines the hegemonic structure of our symbolic space. It isn’t only impossible to tell the whole truth, it is even more impossible to fully lie: Truth always catches up with us in the cracks and displacements of our lies.
Such a properly dialectical notion of truth allows us to refute accusations that Lacan remains caught in a “binary” logic of sexual difference: Did he not purify psychoanalysis of the last traces of the duality of “masculine” and “feminine” principles that underlies the entire premodern tradition, from yin-yang onwards? Lacan didn’t do what one would expect from a psychoanalyst reading philosophy: He didn’t “sexualize” philosophy—on the contrary, he desexualized philosophy, which was, until his arrival, secretly sexualized.
This radical operation of Lacanian psychoanalysis finds apt expression in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth doubts if her husband is ready to commit the act she pushes him to do (killing Duncan and taking his place), since he appears haunted by moral doubts, her rage explodes: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty!” “Unsexing” obviously means here stepping out of the feminine clichés of kindness and compassion—but this in no way equals abandoning a feminine stance: A ruthless and calculating woman is also, after all, a cliché about women. The main thing to note here is that in a similar (but not symmetric) way, the same holds also for men; each sex is “unsexed” in its own way. The reason is that “feminine” and “masculine” don’t stand for a fixed set of properties: They both name a certain deadlock that can only be articulated in a series of inconsistent and even self-contradictory features in which the repressed truth returns.
Today’s gender ideology, by contrast, achieves no such thing. Its operations are rather more like the world of bees, the large majority of which are desexualized “workers” (with their reproductive organs vestigial but remaining well within the biological matrix of sexual reproduction). A corporate honeymaker tells us that
only the queen bee and the drones have a fully developed reproductive system. The worker bees have an atrophic reproductive system. Seven days after her incubation, the queen bee flies outside the beehive, where drones gather, and she mates usually with eight-to-12 drones in midair in the afternoon hours—true love in the afternoon, as the title of a movie says. During mating, the drone’s genitals are reversed and come out of his body, and with his abdominal muscles contracting, he ejaculates. Then his genitals are cut from his body by the queen, causing his death, and the next drone enters…. The queen stores the entire spermatozoon in the spermatheca, and her gland excretes nutrients for the survival of almost 7,000,000 spermatozoa, which are adequate for the rest of her life. During the egg-laying, the queen bee chooses whether she will fertilize every egg that passes through her oviduct; she lays two kinds of eggs, fertilized and non-fertilized. The non-fertilized ones develop into drones, while the fertilized grow into female individuals—this determination is called gender determination. Afterwards, the female individuals can develop into queens or workers, depending on their nutrition during their larva stage—this determination is called caste determination.
If we read this description from our human standpoint, does it not render a weird matriarchal caste society? All the work is done by bees appropriately named workers: They are feminine, with their reproductive organs remaining undeveloped, so they aren’t sexualized, but literally trans-sexual. The sexual intercourse (impregnation) between a queen bee and the drones happens only once in their lifetime: After intercourse, drones die, while the queen gathers enough sperm to last for her entire life. So if the queen is a she and a drone a he, what are the workers? To use today’s nonbinary parlance, are the workers not precisely they? Bees thus form the only known society in which the large majority are “they,” while the worst fate awaits the masculine drones.
Do we not find here, in nature itself, the truth of the model society many among us today strive for?