This is an updated version of my blog post from January 2015. To be published in my forthcoming book Vanguardia.
At a London Critical Theory Summer School event, which took place July 10, 2014, the feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek exchanged some thoughts on the question violence against women.1 Rose stated that her purpose was to discover what is violence against women and consequently to call it what it is. Is the rise in the visibility of violence against women and the protest against it emancipatory, she asked, or is it a voyeuristic perversion that perpetuates the abuse? Or is it, she wondered, citing Žižek from a previous seminar, something that is not secret but disavowed in its very visibility? Rose addressed the work of Catharine MacKinnon as well as Gayatri Spivak’s recent discussion of rape as the conditionality of the human. She said she agreed with MacKinnon’s calls for legal protocols and forms of redress that bring attention to the equation of gender and power. However, she said she is disturbed by MacKinnon’s suggestion that 9/11 is an exemplary day of male violence, equivalent in its number of deaths to the number of women killed by men in the United States every year. Rose is not satisfied to think of women as fated to violence at the hands of men, nor is she satisfied to say that eroticized violence is the cause of male power and the categories of gender as we know them. Her premise instead is that if patriarchy was not effective in society, we would not need feminism, and if it was completely effective, we would not have feminism. Radical feminism monopolized the question of violence against women in the 1970s and 80s because Marxist and psychoanalytic feminists avoided the question. The potentiality of psychoanalysis to feminism, Rose argues, became unspeakable in some way. She then turned to Hannah Arendt, who distinguished violence from power, suggesting that impotent bigness is the false mastery of those in power and the false mastery of the forms of knowledge as well. For Arendt, humans have a need to think about those realms of experience over which people have no control. Melanie Klein, on the hand, discusses the infant boy’s feminine identification with the body of the mother and his need to repudiate this identification. Men’s violence against women, in this case, is more asocial than men’s violence against other men. Whereas men are meant to fight and go to war against other men, male violence against women is more asocial and hidden because it is mixed with an unconscious repudiation. Klein here comes close to giving a gender analysis of the psychic distribution of violence. Our hope, she concluded, is the analysis of “impotent bigness.” Marxist cultural theorist Esther Leslie followed up on this discussion in some way by describing the many different ways in which milk, as a fetishized primal substance, has been represented, abstracted, recombined, commodified, and enmeshed in circuits of association.
As the designated interlocutor, presented by Costas Douzinas as “the giant of Ljubljana,” Žižek responded in his characteristically insightful way that there is nothing more disgusting than real milk and that he is all for its industrial elaboration. Ethical children, he says, are the ones who are allergic to milk. In other words, Žižek rejects the effort to build an ethics on identifications that predate the socialization process – any hope for humanity will be one that is thoroughly socialized. We become human, he argued, and not simply gendered, through these kinds of denaturalizations.
Despite the paucity of their psychoanalysis, the radical feminists are perhaps correct in suggesting that only social laws, such as laws against rape, are effective in creating egalitarian frameworks. The further problem is that it is simply inadequate to consider the persons of men to be guilty in advance, for instance, for their primordial repudiation of the maternal body, or of the body of the father. In this regard the proceedings resulted in an interesting development. Responding to Rose’s notion of impotent bigness, Žižek sought to recover the obscene aspects of the divided nature of any system, including what Lacanians refer to as the Four Discourses.2 The fact that the power of the Master is inconsistent does not prevent it from being effective. The apparent distance from violence, as in Žižek’s theory of the postmodern father, can sometimes have an even more brutally violent potential. Žižek gives as an example the scene in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) where Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) harasses Lula Fortune (Laura Dern), violently threatening her by entreating her to say “fuck me.” Žižek narrated his understanding of the scene this way:
“Totally terrified, she says, “fuck me, fuck me.” And then, something which of course provoked laughter, but is for me so embarrassingly violent. Precisely, it doesn’t happen, what you maybe expect. She says fuck me, o-okay now, he will – Willem Dafoe, incidentally – he will jump on her? No. When she says yes, totally terrified, he steps back, adopts a totally different … “oh, thanks for the offer, but not today, maybe another day,” and so on. And it terrorized me how, you know, precisely this retreat into a fake humanity. Okay, I will not be obscene and say, “it’s worse than real rape,” because you know real rape is real rape, we don’t play with that. But there is something I would say psychologically maybe even more brutally humiliating in this. You see, this is what I am looking after in what is false even in our politically correct tolerance and so on and so on.”
The discussion carried on in different directions, and Rose concluded with the notion that feminism was in danger of being hijacked by the human rights discourse of western powers in their invasions of Afghanistan and other countries – that laws against stalkers and anti-social behaviours can turn into laws against political protest. Feminism is always therefore available for rightist appropriation and can be used to divert attention from the forms of exploitation inequality in which the British collapse of welfare, the attack on dependency culture and the rule of the Conservatives in the U.K. are all witness. But the fact that violence again women is on the agenda at all, she said, is thanks to feminism, even if the making visible of this agenda might “contain a component of perverse social pleasure,” which, she added, “was beautifully demonstrated by Slavoj’s Wild at Heart example, which, as is typical of Slavoj, and I say this with great affection, he couldn’t help but perform for us on the platform today – the last moment in the film – okay that’s fine, we know that’s what you do.” Something can be made visible as a way of concealing it, she concluded, since the act of seeing exhausts your libidinal energy and form of attention. “End of story.” The question is, however, and insofar as I wish in the following to mount a critique of victim politics: to what extent are the conservative and progressive approaches to the question of violence not two sides of the same neoliberal horizon? What is the radical leftist rejoinder to this use of McKinnon, Arendt and Klein, and to the notion of the perversity of making visible?
While Rose here brings attention to Žižek’s performance of Wild at Heart, and maybe also his drag performance of the Dern character, it is not clear what she makes of it as a reply to not notion of the impotence of the place of Master Signifiers.3 In Žižek’s recounting of the scene, we can discern at least four sites of enunciation: Bobby Peru, Lula Fortune and politically correct, fake humanity. These three subject positions correspond well enough to the Discourse of the Master (Peru), the Discourse of the Hysteric (Fortune), the Discourse of the University (fake humanity). A fourth position corresponds to the enunciation of Žižek himself as the Lacanian dialectical materialist, understood here as the Discourse of the Analyst. While the relationship between the Law and the slave in the Discourse of the Master is for Jacques Lacan one of impossibility, moving in the direction of psychosis, the relationship of the Analyst to the Analysand, or to those other academics in the room, is also one of impossibility, but one, however, that is directed towards (social) organization.
The political stakes of this discussion is echoed in a short article by Seth Ackerman in Jacobin magazine. Ackerman remarks upon the U.S. Presidential campaign in which, on July 18, 2015, at a Netroots Nation conference, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were shouted down by Black Lives Matter activists who objected to O’Malley’s statement that “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.” The activists in the room wanted the candidates to admit that racism is a problem in the U.S. and wanted to know what they would do about it. In response to this, Hillary Clinton told a Washington Post reporter: “Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality.”4 Ackerman criticizes Clinton for pandering to what black activists want to hear, that racial animosity is a structural problem in its own right, and argues that what Clinton does not want to account for are the ways that racism is in fact symptomatic of economic inequality.
Ackerman’s reply is somewhat hasty, however, in stating that slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow and urban apartheid were largely driven by economic interests. He cites as part of his counter-argument the racial animosity of the Texas policeman who arrested Sandra Bland, the Chicago woman and Black Lives Matter activist who was found dead in her jail cell one day after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. This policeman, he argues, likely holds racist views about many different kinds of people but none are as likely as a black man or woman to be arrested. For Ackerman, the coincidence of incarceration rates for blacks cannot be extricated from economic poverty since similar statistics apply to poor whites. And we could add to this the fact that such crimes occur in cities that are governed by black politicians. Ackerman concludes with advice from Karl Marx to New Yorkers Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in April 1870:
“England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. (…) This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”5
This notion of impotence, as addressed by Marx, recalls Rose’s analysis of the psychic sources of disidentification. It underscores the importance of psychoanalytic theory to political discourse even if psychoanalysis does not show someone how to adapt to the demands of social reality. In fact, as the postcolonial critic Frantz Fanon well understood, racism happens to be one of the ways that people manage the inconsistencies between the symbolic and the imaginary, a mythic structure, to be sure, that has a stereotypical readymade structure to it, not unlike the milk in Leslie’s analysis. The most difficult thing for psychoanalysts to tell people, and certainly we would not expect to hear this from either Clinton or Sanders, or from Marx for that matter, is that there is no metalanguage. This is something that could potentially be useful to Black Lives Matter activism – the notion of the nonsense of the signifier and the fact that a sociopath is someone who is caught up in language and appearances.6
This impunity of political processes, from war to policing to education, feeds the system insofar as people become cynical about authority and its unwritten rules. Lack of faith in institutions and ideals does not require truth to be revealed, as if people do not know what is happening, since the truth itself appears as non-ideological and falsity is imputed to someone else who does not know. The problem then with “doing the right thing,” say, in response to Black Lives Matter protests, is that it appears to be non-ideological.7 The message on the part of neoliberal politicians is thus divided between the correct political response, which is fully known, and the obscene command to obey – to articulate Black Lives Matter within the dominant neoliberal capitalist logic. Today’s politics of impunity is designed to secure the consent of the ruled. Yet the ruled must at the same time be convinced that their domination is the price to be paid for their freedom. This relationship of domination defines today’s biocapitalism. Biocapitalism is not a simple matter of oppression since it requires as a core feature the post-political view that ideological opposition is a thing of the past: post-politics and the end of history thesis is the ideological fantasy that structures collective acquiescence to the rule of austerity and impunity, which includes police violence. Today’s political subject, therefore, and according to Žižek, is regulated by university knowledge, as Lacan defined it, which presupposes the rule of capital.
In today’s biocapitalism, the dominant strains of post-structural identity politics in the academy, evident in the Black Lives Matter campaigns, are complexly subtended by the politics of austerity and impunity. In this sense today’s authoritarian politics take the form of the technocratic management of complex systems that otherwise would appear to be only arbitrarily governed in the interest of the wealthy plutocracy. We can know this insofar as the making visible of violence in victim politics occludes the collective organization of the radical left, which is ruled out in advance as totalitarian and anti-democratic. All decision-making solutions must therefore appear to be consistent with the very terms of this same violence. I would argue that because of this the contradictions of victim politics are therefore most acute and exploitable from the equivocal middle ground of politically correct petty bourgeois politics, where everyone is either a victim, survivor, or ribbon-wearing supporter, or a victimizer.
To give one example of the kind of problems that victim politics can give rise to, consider some of the effects that an anonymous social movement activist posted on Reddit in 2015 with regard to the “call-out culture” that they have experienced in activist groups. The faulty premises and effects of call-outs, this person says, vary: facile and non-transformative reverse violence; the homogenization and ghettoization of minority groups; lack of educative follow-up and resource-sharing on complex social problems; the conflation of queer/trans/women’s spaces with everyplace; the exploitation of the uneven development of political awareness as a strategy of exclusion; the failure to negotiate discomfort and disagreement and its elevation into threat and safety issues; the elevation of marginality into privilege; the inflation of the political salience of the kind of people one has sex with or the conflation of queer with radical; the avoidance of class issues and specific social demands in favour of interpersonal animosity; the use of call-outs and exclusion as a kind of show trial mentality without frameworks of accountability.8
The over-inflation of lifestyle as one of the only spaces in democratic life where some margin of social change is allowed, and indeed, where it is demanded, reflects the more general neoliberal horizon. We could give as another example of this closed loop between the official political space and its obscene aspects the infamous statement of New Jersey policeman Richard Recine. The background to his statement is the gradual erosion of democratic processes in the U.S. In 2000 the Supreme Court elected to stop vote-counting and to install George W. Bush as President. One year later, the consequences of September 11 were perpetrated on a somewhat willing population – despite mass protests – through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, leading to the establishment of the PATRIOT ACT, which increased government spying, the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), and the Military Commissions Act, which, in the case of an attack similar to 9/11, provides measures for the suspension of the American Constitution with a military government.9 The strengthening of police powers and the assault on democratic rights that have been instituted since the early 2000s have led to the progressive weakening of the division of executive, legislative and judicial powers, as witnessed in 2013-2014 by CIA Director Tim Brennan’s interference with Congressional oversight of torture during the Iraq war.10 The Guantanamo Bay prison camp as well as “black sites” around the world are another consequence of the ‘war on terror,’ along with the Obama administration’s extension of drone warfare, targeted and extrajudicial killings, extraordinary rendition, no-fly lists, and crackdown on whistleblowers. No wonder then that Recine could even think of giving this perfect example of fantasy in transference: “Obama just decimated the freakin’ Constitution, so I don’t give a damn. If he doesn’t follow the Constitution, we don’t have to.”11
The words of Recine might not have any real explanatory value but they do provide a certain perspective on the serial police killings that fly in the face of citizen outrage. It gives a picture of the impunity that corresponds with austerity, and it reflects the fact that police violence is directly associated with economic inequality in the U.S. According to a report issued by the University of Michigan in June, 2014, wealth inequality doubled in the United States during the period 2003 and 2013, the same period in which civil liberties, social security, education, health care, unemployment benefits and industrial policy were being cut, slashed and squandered. In this time period, the median American household lost more than 35 percent of its wealth, while the lowest 25 percent of the working poor and unemployed lost over 63 percent of its wealth. In contrast, the richest 5 percent of Americans have seen their wealth grow by 14 percent, that is, from $1.2 to 1.35 million.12 Since the 2008 bank bailout, and through quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates, making it easier for stock-holders to invest. A picture of how these trends impact the lives everyday people can be seen in the story of Eileen DiNino, the mother of seven children who was found dead in her Pennsylvania jail cell on Saturday, June 7, 2014.13 DiNino had been imprisoned because she was unable to pay the $2000 truancy fines that were imposed on her because some of her children did not attend school classes. In 2009 the School District of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, had collected more than $500,000 from poor families like DiNino’s.
This kind of poverty leads inevitably to a state of paranoia on the part of the wealthy and the right wing, which works to police the boundaries between the rich and poor. Although the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prison population – a number that is double that of Russia, the next highest incarcerator. The prison system in the U.S. is particularly pernicious in its treatment of the homeless and the mentally ill, a fact compounded by cuts to mental health assistance. In May of 2014, a Miami prison guard filed a complaint with the Justice Department, denouncing the practice of abusing and torturing mentally ill inmates for sport.14
What the failures of the justice system to prosecute killer cops points to is the social, systemic and political nature of such violence. One might well wonder why New Jersey police shot 36 year-old African American Jerame Reid nine times after a routine traffic stop and after the man clearly had both his hands in the air. While one could try to explain the rationalizations of such a person, what is perhaps more unsettling and more difficult to fathom but equally hard ignore is the possibility that such crimes are crimes that killer cops actually enjoy. Here we should apply the full implications of the Lacanian notion of enjoyment as the loss of enjoyment in the move beyond the pleasure principle and the sense of duty that one feels towards a superego agency. This superego is the contemporary structure of the various police forces, which, like any army unit, gang, or other form of sacred community, is based on ritual behaviour. Žižek refers to the “institutional unconscious” of guilt-based groups and gives as an example the problem of paedophilia within the Catholic Church.15 Such rituals are not spontaneous, he argues, and one can see this quite clearly in the police murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, where normal procedure both before and after the murder is in a state of suspension, as if something unreal is about to or has taken place, a kind of self-induced stupefaction which indicates, as Žižek says, the socially symbolic aspects of such excessive acts.16
The extent to which the “culturalization” of homicides by the police has become a feature of policing in the United States was made evident after the fatal shooting of two New York City policemen on December 20, 2014. The fact that the suicidal shooter was mentally disturbed and had no clear political connection to the people involved in protesting the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings did not prevent the police force from attempting to reverse the question of culpability onto the protesters. They did this by laying blame on New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, with a figurehead in the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association declaring on social media that “the mayor’s hands,” because he had shown some sympathy towards the Black Lives Matter protesters, “are literally dripping with our blood.” What is closer to the truth is not simply that it is the hands of killer cops Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson that are dripping in the blood of police officers Rapahel Ramos and Wenjian Liu, but more complexly, that it is the hands of the entire police force as a social institution (and ultimately, it is the whole of society that is responsible for the conduct of its police). The misdeeds of individual police officers do not outweigh the need for the institution to reproduce itself: the logic of police violence is therefore inscribed into the exceptional nature of police work. When rank-and-file police officers turned their backs on Bill de Blasio at the funerals of the murdered policemen, were they doing this for the benefit of an “innocent” public spectator who has to be reassured that the cops serve them, that they commit such sacrifices for their benefit, or were they threatening the same public? Beyond such calculations and intentionality, was the gesture not to preserve the innocence of blind justice itself and the appearance of the Law beyond human reach – the appearance of Law for those themselves who are allowed by the system to step beyond it without consequence?
One of the problems here is the manner with which the NYPD in this case could so easily appropriate the innocence of the community rhetoric that defines so much of the politics of today’s progressive “ethical witnessing,” a post-politics that refuses the strategic tasks of defining a universal programme and organizing broad social political change. One can see the flawed nature of the particularist logic of victim politics in the U.S. in the gradual shift from #BlackLivesMatter to the dozen or so similar hashtags that followed, including BlackGayLivesMatter, BlackTransLivesMatter and BlackDifferentlyAbledLivesMatter, all of which were eventually countered by #alllivesmatter.17 With #policelivesmatter the NYPD then assimilated victim politics for its own purposes. Black activists respond by saying that if it’s true that all lives mattered then it would not be necessary to say that black lives matter. This reiterates Jacqueline Rose’s point along with its obverse, which is that if we lived in a completely racist society we would not have the Black Lives Matter movement.
The problem I wish to address here, to take the issue beyond liberal ideology, is not only that the Law protects those in power, but that the Law itself is inconsistent, supported by myriad unstated rules that prescribe the ways in which it is acceptable to break it. What the obscene underside of the split law indicates is perhaps less the fact that killer cops pretend to be carrying out police work so that they can engage in murderous acts for the sake of sadistic enjoyment and obscene community, but that they pretend to enjoy murderous acts and obscene community while secretly wishing to carry out their official duties. The shared guilt that is involved in protecting the right to use lethal force, now overtly encouraged through the militarization of police, is mirrored in the esprit de corps of protesters who are fighting against racism and political inaction. This situation is overdetermined by the domination of the corporate state, the dysfunctional and racist justice system, the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, and the class inequality that overwhelmingly affects the lives of black people in the United States and elsewhere. It is not only black lives that are threatened by the state, however, despite historically-grounded inequality. Unfortunately, the system cannot be corrected solely by demands for democratic accountability. The current parliamentary-capitalist constraints must also be challenged.
The fake humanity of today’s neoliberal plutocracy cannot so easily stand in for what Friederich Schiller long ago described in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man as the “moral structure of society.”18 Schiller’s theory could possibly shed some light on the killing of 12 people at the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. The gunmen were said to be militant islamists who targeted the magazine for its inflammatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad. In comparison with countless similar acts of violence taking place in Turkey or Yemen, this one garnered a great deal of sympathy from the public and the news media did not miss the opportunity to report on the French President François Hollande’s remark that the attack represents a form of “exceptional barbarity.”19
Hollande’s use of the term is instructive as it recalls Schiller’s contrast between barbarism with savagery. In opposition to barbarism, in which political principles are elevated to the point of obscenity and used to justify violent and oppressive acts, savagery demonstrates a lack of principles and relies on a naturalized indolence, wherein the state of Nature, custom and prejudice is used instead to justify acts of violence. In contrast to both of these options, Schiller, as a liberal philosopher, suggests that Man cannot act upon natural consequences but must be led by his own moral impulses, free from the pressures of duty and physical compulsion on the “sovereign right of his personality.”20 Art represents a realm of play of the imagination and understanding wherein “his impulses are sufficiently consonant with his reason to have the value of a universal legislation.”21 Man, in time, becomes consonant with the ideal Man embodied in the State. But Man, writes Schiller,
“can be at odds with himself in a double fashion: either as savage if his feelings rule his principles, or as barbarian if his principles destroy his feelings. The savage despises Art and recognizes Nature as his sovereign mistress; the barbarian derides and dishonours Nature, but – more contemptible than the savage – he continues frequently enough to become the slave of his slave.”22
For the state of individuality to be in concord with the Reason of State, Reason and Nature must be brought into agreement and only the totality of individual character is worthy of comparison with the State.
Is this not then the paradox of the slogan “I am Charlie Hebdo,” which was immediately appropriated by neoliberal politicians to expand the security state apparatus. In France this included a local version of the “Patriot Act” and giving greater legitimacy to the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist policies of the far right party of Marine LePen.
The two levels of analysis, the official and the obscene, are perhaps more visible in the response to Michelle Obama’s media meme of May 2014 in which she held up a sign that says #BringBackOurGirls, referring to the kidnapping of 276 girls by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram in April 2014. The complexity of this conflict was soon revealed as were the plans of the U.S. to make use of this campaign to increase its military presence and economic control of Africa, in part, in response to Chinese investment on the continent. The American state also supports the government in Nigeria, which indirectly supports and funds the Boko Haram. The Obama meme was soon détourned by pranksters who had her sign stating all manner of obscene, connoted messages, including “Nothing will bring back the children murdered by my husband’s drone strikes.”
PSA from the first lady Michelle Obama, shared on Twitter, May 7, 2014. It was accompanied by the caption: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It’s time to #BringBackOurGirls – mo.”
In an article titled “‘Free Speech’ hypocrisy in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo,” David North reported how governments and media exploited the fear and confusion of the public to build support for authoritarianism and militarism.23 By emotionally manipulating the public, the capitalist media led people to think that the Charlie Hebdo incident was an attack on freedom of the press and western freedoms more generally, using the event as public relations ballast for its imperialist policies towards the Middle East, Central Asia and Central Africa. The article mentions that the American military is responsible for the deaths of 15 journalists during its wars in the Middle East and that in 2007 it deliberately murdered two Reuters journalists working in Baghdad, a fact that was made known by the revelations of Chelsea Manning. The overall attack on whitleblowers by the Obama administration serves as further proof that the current White House is hardly a great supporter of freedom of speech. By making the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists into martyrs of free speech and avatars of a longstanding tradition of political satire, the media seeks support for current political machinations. While the article distances itself completely from the attack, it wishes to remind readers of the political uses of religion as well as the lack of intellectual and moral value of the cartoons put out by the magazine, a provocation that North compares to the kind of anti-Semitic cartoons that emerged in France in the 1890s and that in the contemporary context facilitates the growth of right-wing chauvinist movements in France.
The crux of North’s argument is that such images have political consequences and a political context to be addressed and considered. In other words, to bring this back to the “Je suis Charlie” signs, the vacant stance of victim politics does not substitute for a conscious political perspective.24 This point can be made with reference to the “Je suis chien” campaign in which people posted social media hashtags to honour the death of a police dog in a police raid in a Paris suburb in November 2015.
In the case of Michelle Obama, one has difficulty accepting imperialist neoliberal capitalism as a moral structure. Nevertheless it becomes possible and acceptable to many for her to effectively take on the stance of victim politics insofar as it substitutes for a radical political perspective. The question then is whether or not victim politics, in the context of class struggle, acts as anything more than a gateway drug to right-wing politics or to some version of what Tariq Ali refers to as the extreme centre?25 As Žižek put it in Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
“On September 11, the USA was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was part of. It might have taken this opportunity – but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out with feelings of responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished Third World, we are the victims now!”26
While Žižek sees violent outbursts like 9/11 as “defense-formations covering up the void of the failure to intervene effectively in the social crisis,” “proof a contrario of the possibility of the authentic proletarian revolution,” and “awareness of the missed revolutionary opportunity” we could say the same thing about the contemporary global meme of #victim politics.27
This instance of fetishistic disavowal is complexly related to the issue of how representation matters – a common trope derived from postmodern cultural studies. What is missing from the perspective of proponents of liberal free speech and civil disobedience is an understanding of the way that representation sometimes does not matter. From a psychoanalytic point of view, signs stand in for the subject and the lack in the subject. Not only does victim politics often lack a clear political analysis, such analysis, where it is present, may also have the function of lack, a meaningless injunction that the subject fails to respond to as anything other than a remainder that he or she has survived. This brings us one step closer to the reproach that Raoul Vaneigem made of the student protesters of his era, penitents as he called them, renouncing an active life of authentic politics for the self-annihilating beauty of a clear conscience.28 No wonder then that the attitude of victim politics produces an aftereffect of cynical wisdom: I do not intervene in a situation but actively react to one in order to protect the power structure through which I enjoy as victim. The humanity that I appeal to intersubjectively and transferentially covers up my responsibility as a political subject. It is a necessity in this context to find a civilizational route that does not rely on the criminality of today’s neoliberal state regimes nor on a citizenry of victims.
1. The discussion also included Stephen Frosh, Esther Leslie and moderator Costas Douzinas. See “London Critical Theory/Summer School 2015,” You Tube (July 14, 2015), Part 1 of 4 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaR7riRmgm4. This essay is an expanded version of the text “Against Victim Politics,” which I published on my Blog of Public Secrets (January 9, 2015).
2. See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 1969-1970, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton,  2007).
3. Certainly, in relation to libidinal energy, the idea that seeing constitutes the outer limits of the charmed circle of normal sexuality is one that deserves further unpacking. On this, see Gayle Rubin’s classic essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Carole S. Vance, ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1984) 267-319.
4. Hillary Clinton cited in Seth Ackerman, “Yes, Racism Is Rooted in Economic Inequality,” Jacobin (July 29, 2015), available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/07/hillary-clinton-democatic-primary-sanders-netroots/.
5. Marx cited in Ackerman, “Yes, Racism Is Rooted in Economic Inequality.”
6. See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XIV: The Logic of Phantasy, 1966-1967, trans. Cormac Gallagher, available online at www.lacan.ireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/THE-SEMINAR-OF-JACQUES-LACAN-XIV.pdf. See also Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta Books, 2006).
7. See the entry on “Slavoj Žižek” at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/zizek/.
8. Anonymous, “Things That Anarchists Say to Me in Private But Never Repeat Publicly,” anarchistnews.org (August 2, 2015), available at http://www.anarchistnews.org/content/things-anarchists-say-me-private-never-repeat-publicly.
9. Tom Carter, “The police-military crackdown in Ferguson, the assault on democratic rights, and the record of the World Socialist Web Site,” World Socialist Web Site (September 6, 2014), available at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/09/06/demo-s06.html.
10. Tim Dickinson, “11 Jaw-Dropping Lines From Dianne Feinstein’s CIA Torture Statement: Senate Intelligence Committee chair accuses the CIA of spying on Congress and concealing key details,” Rolling Stone (March 11, 2014), available at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/11-jaw-dropping-lines-from-dianne-feinsteins-cia-torture-statement-20140311.
11. See “NJ Cop: I don’t give a damn about Constitution tarnished by Obama,” RT America (August 7, 2014), available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ab7SgQzEwag.
12. See Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni, Wealth Levels, Wealth Inequality, and the Great Recession, University of Michigan, June 23, 2014, available at http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/working_papers/pfeffer-danziger-schoeni_wealth-levels.pdf.
13. Maryclaire Dale, “Mother of 7 Jailed For Kids’ Truancy Fines Found Dead In Cell,” The Huffington Post (June 13, 2014), available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/11/eileen-dinino-dead-pennsylvania-jail_n_5486353.html.
14. See Andre Damon, “Police violence and the American gulag,” World Socialist Web Site (June 4, 2014), available at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/06/04/pers-j04.html.
15. Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise (London: Allen Lane, 2014) 74.
16. Žižek, Trouble in Paradise, 73.
17. On this see, George Yancy’s interview with Judith Butler, “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?” The New York Times (January 12, 2015), available at http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/?_r=3&referrer. See also the website http://blacklivesmatter.com.
18. Friederich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Mineola: Dover,  2004) 35.
19. “Charlie Hebdo: Gun attack on French magazine kills 12,” BBC News Europe (January 7, 2015), available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30710883.
20. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 31.
21. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 31.
22. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 34.
23. David North, “‘Free Speech’ hypocrisy in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo,” World Socialist Web Site (January 9, 2015), available at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/09/pers-j09.html.
24. See “Slavoj Žižek on the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Are the worst really full of passionate intensity?” New Statesman (January 10, 2015), available at http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity.
25. Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (London: Verso, 2015). Žižek makes a similar argument regarding the extremism of free market capitalism, but argues how the policing of identities acts as its complement, thereby obscuring the possibility of an emancipatory left politics. See Slavoj Žižek, “The Lesson of Rancière,” in Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum , 2004) 69-79.
26. Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002). See also my essay “In a Way We Are All Hokies: Polylogue on the Socio-Symbolic Frameworks of Community Art,” in Marc James Léger, Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012) 46-66.
27. Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 23.
28. Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Rebel Press,  2001).