Žižek on Hebdo

by Mark Wallace

Perhaps one of the more interesting responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has come from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, published in the New Statesman. Or there may be many more interesting responses, but I haven’t read them. My reading on the subject has been fairly desultory. Žižek in this piece takes an almost psychologizing angle, trying to get into the mind of a terrorist, and reaching some conclusions thereon. Hereafter, I paraphrase his argument (possibly misreading, but who’s keeping score?)

The rage of the terrorist against Western society is, says Žižek, proof in itself that he (the terrorist) does not really believe that images of Mohammed are an offence against God. The true fundamentalist, Žižek argues, would have no interest in punishing those who offended God, as he would be secure in the knowledge that God can look after himself. But the terrorist is filled with rage because he has, partially, at least,* internalized western standards to the extent of feeling his own shortcomings in relation to them. The terrorist then, is not an arch-fundamentalist, but in his consciousness occupies a mid-point between the real fundamentalist (marked by “indifference”, to use the term Žižek employs), and the cynical, jaded subject of Western culture (marked, I suppose, by another kind of indifference).

It is perhaps presumptuous to try and get into the mind of a terrorist in this manner, especially when no attempt has been made to look at the empirics of the manner. Why did not Žižek look into work that had been done on terrorist psychology with terrorists themselves? The answer is that he is a theorist, and a writer. It is the quality of Žižek’s response that we want to read; we don’t want the facts, not from him, anyway. In other words, the Author is not Dead, no matter what one hears to the contrary. To begin to agree or disagree with Žižek, one would have to have some knowledge of the empirics of the situation. This, of course, the present writer does not have.

Yet the present writer is of course reminded of the Carlylean Imagination, totalitarian in its implications, as many have said, filled with rage against society as then constituted. Whence Carlyle’s rage, as expressed, not in acts of terror, but in brutal diatribes against Blacks, the Irish, the Poor, the Idle, and so forth. Certainly it did not come from a true and absolute fundamentalism. Carlyle’s personal correspondence and his posthumously published Reminscences make this clear: he was a tortured soul, always lacking the comfort of true fundamentalism. Nietzsche, another philosopher with a penchant for psychologizing, put it perhaps most incisively: “Carlyle is an English atheist who makes it a point of honour not to be one.” Hence, perhaps, Carlyle’s sadistic and brutal rage, and it is just possible that this is something he shares with those drawn to acts of terror.

*The “partially” is mine. Žižek just says the terrorist has internalized said standards, but had he wholly internalized them (if it’s even possible to wholly internalize any ideology), then surely he would simply be a normal, Western citizen. The terrorist mentality is, surely, better thought of as product of a war within the consciousness between  the standards of the parent-culture (which, Žižek seems to be saying, the terrorists secretly believe – or at least suspect – is inferior: I say “seems” because Žižek in the passage quoted only specifically says the terrorists believe themselves inferior, but it is in the context of their “cultural-religious identity”) and those of the target culture. It is the inability to arrive at an acceptable ideological reconciliation that produces a defensive rage (perhaps).

From Žižek’s essay in the New Statesman:

[He’s riffing on Yeats’ line “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”] It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.