It’s hard to believe, but just in 2011, Slavoj Zizek was speaking at Occupy Wall Street to excitement and acclaim. Zizek was still a respected leftist academic. He was the prolific author of dozens of books. And he had a new movie, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, still on the way. His particular brand of criticism, which blends the ‘high’ culture of continental philosophy and the ‘low’ culture of movies and pop culture in an accessible op-ed format, was still cool and fresh.
Fast forward seven years and the situation couldn’t be more different. Leftists recoil at his name. Academics think he’s made himself into a factory of lazy, watered-down philosophy for bite-sized consumption. Activists think he’s betrayed the left on political correctness and made overtures to fascism. Though still well-known enough to pen frequent op-eds, he no longer commands the influence on the left he once did. His appearances in The Guardian and In These Times seem to have stopped since last year, and now Zizek contributes more regularly to RT. He has, reluctantly, found a new audience — one that shares his taste for shocking provocation and esoteric philosophical arguments against the scolding mantras of political correctness. Zizek has become a neoreactionary philosopher.
Ironically, many worldwide political developments since the Occupy movement have actually vindicated Zizek. Europe’s refugee crisis laid bare the raw tensions between the liberal ideas of open borders, anti-xenophobia, and tolerance on one hand and the Western European assumption of a secular social-democratic welfare state on the other. Zizek caused a stir by arguing that the dream of many refugees — of being permitted free access to a utopian life anywhere they choose — was unrealistic, and that it could be the task of national militaries to organize a humane solution for the refugee issue in general. With the heretical opposition to unconditional openness, and his tendency to test the limits of political correctness, Zizek’s heterodox takes on Freudo-Marxism ceased to impress many on the left.
After the shock victory of the Brexit referendum, the crisis in neoliberalism and its implications for nationalism and identity politics became impossible to ignore. As the 2016 U.S. presidential election neared, Zizek made a much-publicized “anti-endorsement” of Trump on Russia Today, claiming that Clinton would be a worse president whose victory would perpetuate a wretched status quo and the paralysis of the left. Following his understanding of dialectical materialism, a Trump administration, though horrible, would amount to a negation of the hegemonic liberal ideology and present an opportunity for radical change — a line of thinking that brings him closer to the reactionary accelerationists drawn to the creative potential of crisis and danger than to the relative conservatism of a Clinton supporter like Noam Chomsky. With Trump’s subsequent electoral upset and the apparent collapse of center-left parties across the western world, it seemed that Zizek could stake a claim to picking up the pieces.
Sensing opportunity to outflank their own critics, infamous Alt-Right figures like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos endorsed Zizek and tried to position him as an anti-PC crusader who has more in common with the alt-right than with the leftist academia that welcomed him before. Zizek’s weak response to the question of political violence — that “punching a nazi” was not the best answer to the newly empowered fascist agitators, and that the proper course of action in such trying times was to retreat into books — was the final straw for many of his former admirers. Letting the alt-right endorsements go without rebuke was a serious strategic error and a miscalculation of what exactly is at stake in the Trump era of public discourse.
Since then, Zizek has practiced what he preached — retreating into scholarship — while continuing to publish short op-eds. His latest, on the moral dilemma of whether sex robots should have rights, is a disappointment emblematic of his recent career stage. In the op-ed, Zizek argues against the idea, advanced by politically-correct moralists, that society should adopt ethical attitudes toward sex robots, not to alleviate the suffering of robots (who cannot feel pain or humiliation) but simply to curtail the problematic aggressive desires of humans. He ultimately suggests that a sign of the ethical autonomy of a sex robot would be not that it rejects the sexual advance of a human, but secretly enjoys it, even against its own programming.
This answer is satisfying no one. To the PC police on his left, Zizek dances behind the wire fence of the metaphorical sex robot to suggest that it is the hidden, secret desire for aggressive sexual advances that makes us human — an egregious affront to survivors of heinous sexual assault. To those on his right, those that perhaps he is not even thinking about — the acolytes of Nick Land, the “unconditional accelerationists,” the speed-addled Marinettis of the computer age — he doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the boundless cruelty of cold machine-desire. Unlike the negation-minded Zizek, their prescription to escape capitalism is through it, by accelerating its contradictions until they necessitate catastrophic collapse. But Zizek does not think to engage the fringe discourse of the mad advocates of transhumanist hyperfascism, who set the terms of the debate from below, with wild unedited blogs from their basements in Silicon Valley or Shanghai that command the attention of the likes of Peter Thiel and Steve Bannon. He satisfies himself with a quick jab at the social justice warriors and off he goes.
Unlike Zizek, who draws on the work of Hegel and Lacan, the accelerationists are part of a philosophical trajectory that draws on Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. Unlike the Hegelian system, which is powered by a logical ‘engine’ of negativity that propels change in the sense that Marx himself imagined, this system is one of pure production and affirmation. It is the system of a vast computer network that can subsume all desire into its own logic — the system by which all the once-radical slogans of the 60s counterculture, of free love and self-discovery, of resistance to all authorities, even of social justice itself, are subsumed into to the logic of capital accumulation — the logic of Facebook and Google. And it is this logic, not that of the moralizers he wants to argue against, that will govern such an issue as the ethics of sex robots.
But for Zizek to engage the accelerationist camp would require dusting off some old books and revisiting some debates that he may have thought to have settled long ago. It would require taking a second look at some of his core influences, and rethinking the vocabulary he has used to describe the world throughout his entire career. In fact, it would require an entirely Copernican negation. After all, a lot has changed in the past seven years.
Mike Crumplar is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter.