Žižek on Multiculturalism,
Or Why Liberals Love a Good Tea Party
WILLIAM J. URBAN
After the initial shock of the events of September 11 dissipated, there was a brief but idealistic period in which some argued a unique historical crossroads had been reached: finally, there had arrived an unprecedented opportunity to honestly confront the most serious challenges of modernity. And it seemed there was no more urgent a problem than to bridge the great cultural divide between the West and the rest of the world. Slavoj Žižek, however, did not participate in this optimism. In an interview conducted just two months after those tragic events, Žižek predictably downplays the fundamentalist attacks as brought on by a clash between global cultures and recasts things against a background of economic class relations, while being careful to emphasize that the attacks were not a working-class response to American imperialism. (Žižek 2001c) Rather, he tells us that the problems of modernity are not so easily grasped and reiterates his fear that we will continue down the erroneous path of converting issues of economic exploitation into problems of cultural tolerance. He provocatively asks us whether it is not ‘symptomatic that multiculturalism exploded at the very historic moment when the last traces of working-class politics disappeared from political space?’ We read further that for Žižek, multiculturalism is ‘a kind of ersatz working-class politics’ and has been so for the last ‘20 to 30 years.’ This timeline places the formal birth of multiculturalism as far back as 1971 – a date which cannot but bring to mind the speech Trudeau delivered that same year to the House of Commons in which he announced the implementation of multiculturalism as the official policy of the Canadian government. (Adams 2007: 77)
Thus, if we are to explicate Žižek’s critique of multiculturalism – as this paper sets out to do – it seems that Canada, Australia and other countries with similar official policies should form an important backdrop to the discussion. But there are good reasons why we should look elsewhere. Will Kymlicka, himself ‘one of the world’s leading authorities on multiculturalism’ from Queen’s University according to Adams (ibid 75), points out the obvious, that the multiculturalism ‘debate in the United States has a special importance because of the profound influence of American ideas around the world.’ (Kymlicka 2001: 266) His general thesis therefore follows that for better or worse, the US has considerable impact on other countries with regard to their own policies, Canada included, while the reverse does not seem to be the case. (ibid 266–74) As we shall see, the importance of the US on the world scene is particularly significant in the case of Žižek because he emphasizes that multiculturalism, as such, is a response to global economic processes of which the US plays a lead role. Further, the unique way the American Nation-State has been historically constituted places it at the forefront of ever new multiculturalist ideological formations which are further disseminated globally. So while it is true that Canada is more confident, even arrogantly so, on the international scene because of its initial leadership in having been among the first to formally implement multiculturalist policies,1 due to its relative global insignificance we should rather have in mind the American experience when considering Žižek’s critique of multiculturalism.2
Perhaps the greatest obstacle (besides the obvious difficulty of understanding his dialectical method) in presenting Žižek’s work in a systematic fashion is his own failure to do so. His thoughts on American multiculturalism are no exception to this general rule, despite having at least one journal article and a few brief sections dedicated (at least titularly) to this topic across his many books. But what appears in these texts as mere fragmentations of thought and half-reasoned claims on multiculturalism should actually be taken as hints and indications of a ‘deeper’ underlying topological structure, albeit one that paradoxically lies much closer to the ‘surface’ than one would expect. Once one experiences Žižek’s work in this manner, his claims no longer remain as outlandish and nonsensical as first encountered. It is with this experience in mind that we will attempt a systematic presentation in three stages, which correspond to Žižek’s three philosophical and theoretical antecedents: his (Hegelian) German idealism, his Marxism and his debt to Lacanian psychoanalysis. But we should note upfront that while each area reveals a crucial component of his overall critique of multiculturalism, it is only when taken together that a more comprehensive understanding of his topology emerges. Such is the dialectical method that each component cannot be treated in complete isolation. We should also stress from the onset that our use of non- Žižekian texts in this paper is not aimed at providing a thorough survey of the field of multiculturalism. Rather, they are always used with an eye toward an exposition and delineation of Žižek’s own critique; specifically, of how and why Žižek situates multiculturalism as a (failed) response to global capitalism and to indicate what he feels a proper response would entail.