Reflecting on Žižek with Carlyle

by Mark Wallace

Slavoj Žižek is turning into a Carlyle in his own right at this stage. He’s been getting heat for his attitude to Syrian refugees as expressed in articles like this one. The congregation are starting to wonder, is the Z. just another reactionary bore who has somehow inveigled his way to the vanguard of intellectuo-academic culture. One is reminded of Carlyle’s publication of his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849), a work that called more or less emphatically for the return of slavery to the West Indies. This did not go down well. Froude (Thomas Carlyle: His life in London, 1884) writes:

A paper on the Negro or Nigger question, properly the first of the ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ was Carlyle’s declaration of war against modern Radicalism. Hitherto, though his orthodoxy had been questionable, the Radicals had been glad to claim him as belonging to them[.]

That’s right, and should be rememberd, Carlyle was a Radical – with a capital R. Carlyle was expelled (figuratively speaking) from the ranks of the Radicals, and his remained very far to the right according to public opinion since. J.S. Mill wrote an angry rejoinder to Carlyle’s piece, which is worth reading. (Both pieces were published anonymously, but they both were aware who they were arguing with – Carlyle, in particular, had an unmistakeable  style.)

Žižek’s piece is far less incendiary than Carlyle’s, which used brutally sadistic and dehumanizing language (trollish language, one would have to say), but then standards have changed, and imputations of racism, etc., are more serious than they were in Carlyle’s culture. In my thesis, I argue that we now tend to read Carlyle’s oeuvre through our pre-existing knowledge of his racist offensiveness (thanks to Said and other scholars who called him out over a century later), but that Carlyle’s contemporaries did the opposite – reading the nasty, brutal stuff through his earlier, sensitive-humanist stuff. Reading his obituaries, they basically ignored all the bad stuff and spoke of him as a humane writer who cared for the underdog and hated injustice (George Eliot’s 1855 essay is also a great example of this). They didn’t explain away Negro Question – they just ignored it. Now, one sniff of that particular paper, and it colours everything we know about Carlyle. It’s so far off the scale it indicts him immediately.

So a reading of the radical Carlyle is hard to get away with these days. Is Žižek heading in that direction? Do we read him differently from now on? There’s a lot of questionable material in Žižek- the really coarse and smutty (and often not very witty) jokes; this idea that ‘woman is a symptom of man’ (sure it can be intellectualized [and it was], but look at it baldly, unintellectually – it’s sexism at its purest); his equivocal obsession with the figure of ‘the jew’. Could we perform a Carlylean reading of his work: ‘actually he was just a boorish, racist chauvinist all along, rather than the great philosopher we thought he was – it’s all there from the beginning’. It is all there, I think, though maybe there’s lots of good stuff there, too. Žižek shows, as Carlyle did, that the line separating left from right is a thin one, and is not always where we think it is. Whatever the final message of Žižek turns out to be, it will be less important than it seemed to his acolytes. I suggest that Žižek was/is fun and charismatic, his mind moved at high speed and across vast conceptual spaces, and it was that ‘surplus enjoyment’ (as the man himself would say) that we all read him for in the first place, not the substantive content. And he gave and gives us that, more than any major contemporary thinker.