Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2010

Zizek embarrassments

Filed under: cuba,Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm

I am not sure that Slavoj Zizek has the same cachet with Marxist graduate students he had about 10 years ago, but in case there are some readers of the unrepentant Marxist who fall into that category, let me draw your attention to two items—one about Cuba and the other about Avatar—that might give you pause for thought. Although I no longer have the kind of visceral dislike for his ideas and personality I once did, every once in a while he can really get my dander up.

A couple of weeks ago Derrick O’Keefe sent me a link to a Youtube clip  of Zizek speaking on “The Future of Europe” at a conference in Slovenia. Someone must have asked him about Cuba during the Q&A since his potshots  seem to have little to do with the topic at hand unless he was trying to warn the audience about the dangers of “stagnation” and “gulags” that might attend a Cuban-style revolution in Europe.

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”. No, I am not making this up. Just watch the Youtube clip and see for yourself. As a professional psychoanalyst, as Zizek described himself, the only explanation for this kind of “renunciation” was a kind of self-destructive mental illness. For Zizek, the effects of an American embargo and the need to spend a disproportionate amount of the national treasury on weaponry becomes a form of anorexia, as if Fidel Castro viewed consumer goods and creature comfort as “bourgeois”.

Zizek also urges those in his audience to see the “gulags” in Cuba. I am not sure whether the psychoanalyst, film critic and fan of Lenin has read much about Cuba, but the island has been invaded by an expeditionary force organized by the USA and suffered billions of dollars of war damages during Operation Mongoose. It has also had to put up with a domestic opposition financed by the USA ever since the revolutionaries took power. Any other country that had to face such mortal threats would have been far more repressive than Cuba, including the USA which put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during WWII simply for being Japanese.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on “Zizek and Cuba” in google/books and came up with a  reference that helped put his Youtube utterances into perspective. In “Welcome to the desert of the Real”, a group of essays meditating on 9/11, Zizek describes a “paradox” in which the main result of the revolution is “to bring social dynamics to a standstill”. If you’re a bit puzzled about what exactly this standstill involves, he would tell you that it is the “1950s American cars” you see everywhere. Someone with the barest curiosity about Cuba might know that the island places much more emphasis on other forms of “social dynamics” than automobiles, including a biotechnology industry second to none:

Cuba’s biotechnological capacity places it in group four of the World Health Organization’s five categories. To reach group five, which is formed only by the eight top industrial economies, Cuba must produce at least 20% of the 260 basic materials. It regularly produces 18% of these and certainly has the scientific ability to produce the others with biotech methods.

Cuba also has 160 distinct research and development units and over 10,000 researchers through out the country

According to Cuba’s own figures, as well as those provided by scientists and engineers, both from Cuba and other countries, the Cuban government has spent approximately $3,500 million dollars in this industry since 1986. The return of such investment has been approximately the sales of $200 million dollars in vaccines and medicines. The production for domestic use has been almost nothing, since the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines. [LP: An assertion that unlike those made previously is not backed by data. The fact is that Cuba’s infant mortality rate and average life expectancy match those of Canada. If it lacked “the most basic medicines”, this could not be possible. In any case, the hostility toward Cuba expressed by this assertion, if anything, would add weight to the previous comments about biotechnology.]

Unlike the Lacanian, Cuba seems to have its priorities straight.

Turning now to his review of Avatar, it must be said that his leftist attack on the movie that appeared in the New Statesman is familiar by now, coming rather late in the game, and with the by-now obligatory mention of Dances with Wolves:

The utopia imagined in Avatar follows the Hollywood formula for producing a couple – the long tradition of a resigned white hero who has to go among the savages to find a proper sexual partner (just recall Dances With Wolves)…

Avatar’s fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the “military-industrial complex” of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.

Oddly enough, this analysis was embraced by David Brooks of the NY Times, an op-ed columnist with a long history in the neoconservative movement:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Zizek scolds Cameron for not having made a movie that the indigenous peoples of Orissa could relate to. These are the Indian poor who are being displaced by mining companies that Sanhati activist Siddhartha Mitra reported on at last week’s Left Forum.  Zizek writes:

So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.

Despite Zizek’s animosity, there is evidence that the super-exploited do connect to the movie.

Ironically, the Chinese workers and peasants who are being robbed of the social gains of the Maoist revolution that these very Naxalites identify with do feel a connection as the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The plot of “Avatar,” on the other hand, could be seen to parallel all sorts of contemporary Chinese problems. The tale of a people threatened with eviction by outsiders in search of minerals could, for example, be thought to echo the plight of the Tibetans.

But the similarity that resonates with ordinary Chinese is between the invaders’ rapacious attack on the Na’vis in “Avatar” and greedy property developers’ routine evictions of householders and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

Such evictions are the most common cause of violent disturbances in China, according to official statistics.

“Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,” wrote one blogger.

Some protesters have already used the movie to draw attention to their plight. One blog carried a photo of a building under construction in the southern province of Guangdong draped with banners proclaiming, “We are innocent Na’vis on the planet Pandora” and “The Avatar reality show is on.”

Meanwhile Evo Morales, a leader of indigenous peoples in Bolivia who became president on a leftwing program, relates to Cameron’s “racist” movie as well:

“LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s first indigenous president is praising “Avatar” for what he calls its message of saving the environment from exploitation.

A self-proclaimed socialist, Evo Morales says he identifies with the film’s “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Finally, the Palestinians have found the movie’s message and imagery relevant enough to appropriate for a novel demonstration:


  1. Zizek is a mixed bag. His review of 300 was abysmal http://www.lacan.com/zizhollywood.htm). However, when Zizek is on, he’s really on, and I thought he conducted himself very well in his 2008 debate with Bernard Henri Levy. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Zizek still has some insights that are definitely worth retaining.

    Comment by Greg — March 24, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

  2. hey no one is perfect, not even Zizek…
    and besides why side with a multi-millionaire Hollywood liberal? Avatar is nothing special…it’s about as anti-war as an episode of M*A*S*H…

    Comment by Bebe — March 24, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  3. Zizek (and Badiou also) is indeed problematic. He’s weak on political economy. I don’t think it bothers him as a philosopher/psychoanalyst, but it should bother him as a Marxist. (Lacanianism/Freudianism may indeed be fundamentally bourgeois.) He flirts with Stalinism (which doesn’t bother me). But he would seem to agree with Louis on Iran and China (which may or may not be problematic). And he’s a great scourge of postmodernism. And a great analyst of ideology. And he turned me toward Marxism, anyway, and for that I am grateful.

    Comment by Alex — March 24, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  4. “He flirts with Stalinism (which doesn’t bother me).”

    Um. I think that is telling about Zizek’s “persona” writ large that he is largely a radical bourgeois idealist thinker that “flirts with Stalinism.” I think his ironic flirtations may not really be all that ironic sometimes.

    Comment by GM — March 24, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

  5. I loved this post, Louis. Thanks.

    Comment by Mina Kh. — March 24, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

  6. Zizek’s definitely right about Avatar. Evo Morales says a lot of weird stuff, especially about nature, little of which is based on the Marxist critique of capitalism and much of which is incompatible with it. I note that you haven’t actually engaged in anything Zizek said in the review, just accused him of (kind of) agreeing with David Brooks and disagreeing with some Third World anti-imperialists. Is this how critics are to be assessed?

    Comment by skip — March 25, 2010 @ 3:55 am

  7. “‘Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,’ wrote one blogger.”

    With all due respect to the Chinese residents battling violent accumulation, I’m not sure that relying on the very planet to awaken and send wild animals to drive out the miners is a good strategy, nor is hoping that one of the bulldozer-operators will switch sides and lead the tenants to victory.

    Comment by skip — March 25, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  8. “‘…the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines.’

    “Unlike the Lacanian, Cuba seems to have its priorities straight.”


    Comment by Brice — March 25, 2010 @ 5:00 am

  9. Louis, just to clarify. He’s talking about the Gulags in the Soviet Union – I’m not sure that there are such things in Cuba. He mentions visiting the Kolyma Highway in Magadan and paying some mafia protection while there.

    Comment by Donal — March 25, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  10. “‘…the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines.’

    People can decide for themselves if this is true or not. This assertion, unlike the others made about biotechnology, is not backed by data.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 25, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  11. Zizek is wrong about Avatar. The central message of the film is obvious, as Evo Morales points out.
    As a student at a university in England I can confirm that Zizek still retains some popularity and rightly so, as Greg said some of his insights are useful.

    On Cuba he is painfully embarrassing; I mean what was he thinking!

    If he wants to see stagnation up close he should come to England and look at the potholes in the roads!

    Comment by James — March 25, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  12. After following several dialogues criticizing or defending Avatar and it’s message, I am still left with one intellectual paradox rolling around in my head. No matter what the story or message of Avatar is, be it anti-imperialist, deep ecology, or white messiah the FACT is that it functions to serve modern corporatism and it’s continual process of concentrating wealth. The gross earnings of Avatar ranks higher than the GDP of 29 countries, including Belize, Liberia, and East Timor. In keeping with the ‘concentration of wealth’, we all know that it takes money to generate that sort of profit, and Avatar cost $237 million to make and $150 million to promote. So capital generates more capital, all into the hands of the same people (Rupert Murdoch and Fox).
    No comment about how green/ecological or sustainable it is to produce such a monstrosity, we can’t even imagine the energy footprint this must have produced.
    So who cares what the message, the medium is the message. The medium here is corporatism, capitalism, and commercialism, the story seems secondary.

    Comment by Darren — March 25, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

  13. It’s so easy to criticize Cuba, especially after a quick drop-in visit. Journalists and independent radicals do it all the time. Why should Zizek be different from others who pay no attention to Washington’s blockade? Yet an understanding of that blockade, and its myriad effects on Cuban life and culture, are essential to any understanding of the country and its politics.

    Without such an understanding, it’s impossible to understand anything about Cuba.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — March 26, 2010 @ 4:30 am

  14. Darren, yours should be the last words on Avatar. And they reveal how ideology works even on anti-imperialists. Zizek couldn’t have put it better. Capitalism always comes first, then imperialism and spectacle.

    Comment by Alex — March 26, 2010 @ 4:58 am

  15. I think Zizek is quite wrong about Avatar. The “white messiah” theme is certainly there. But I think the paraplegic messiah and his political evolution provide a sort of bridge from us (the viewers) to the aliens, to make them seem less exotic and more accessible. Because on other levels, it is quite clear that the message is, their ecological connection is something we should all aspire to (stripped of its fantasy elements of course). It’s not a really deep messsage, or a new one, (and the plot is a bit predictable) but it’s so timely, and made with such stunning visuals, that I think the film deserves cred. And of course it makes lots of moolah for Mr Cameron and Hollywood, but it’s what else it does that is interesting to us.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — March 26, 2010 @ 5:54 am

  16. To be fair, I think anyone from a developed country should have to stop in to Haiti or the Dominican Republic before visiting Cuba, so that they can compare it with countries with similar history instead of their own.

    Comment by Brice — March 26, 2010 @ 5:55 am

  17. Louis, as you may know, I’m one of those avid readers of blog and Zizek as well. The former is for politics, and the latter is for unparalleled entertainment value. Here is my brief Lacanian review of Avatar (in the comments section):


    Zizek’s analysis is not less problematic than Avatar’s so-called anti-imperialist massage. While Zizek unbelievably invokes to commonplaces by comparing it to movies where the sole function of primitive aborigines is to save the troubled psychological economy of a white hero which finally enables him to unite with his old society properly (actually, Avatar breaks this cliche: Our hero becomes one of them). Avatar, on the other hand, reduces imperialist exploitation to simple a matter of expressiveness of corporate greed.

    As regards to Cuba, If it is really as he told, I might like it. I want humbleness, peaceful stagnation and inefficient simpleness. Oh, well.. and gulags for counter-revolutionary terrorists.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — March 26, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  18. There’s also the issue of Morales allowing for mining: http://democracyctr.org/blog/2010/03/global-climate-change-conference-coming.html

    Comment by Jenny — March 29, 2010 @ 3:17 am

  19. And while the above is a foundation funded by Soros(thankfully the author has no plans to overthrow Morales), here’s more of a genuine editorial from a resident to your liking: https://nacla.org/node/6096

    Comment by Jenny — March 29, 2010 @ 3:28 am

  20. “Evo Morales says a lot of weird stuff, especially about nature, little of which is based on the Marxist critique of capitalism and much of which is incompatible with it.”

    Maybe we need a white hero to straighten him out.

    Comment by Rojo — March 29, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

  21. […] One imagines that despite being a “Leninist”, Zizek would be not that impressed with such measures in light of his general displeasure with the island’s “stagnation”, something I commented on in a prior post: […]

    Pingback by Zizek as shock jock « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 13, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

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