Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Part 3)

Notes from the LeftEast editors: This is the second out of four parts of the article of Dragan Plavšić, which offers a critique of the recent book of Slavoy Zizek and Agon Hamza “ “From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo”. The first part of the article can be read here, and the second here, and the last here.

Žižek: To be, or not to be, for imperialism, that is the question!

From Myth to Symptom attempts, as we have seen, to provide a critique of neo-imperial intervention and experimentation in Kosovo. And we have also seen that one of its key features is a critique of “ethno-centric reasoning” in neo-imperial multiethnic form, with all its accompanying arrogance and latent racism. Taken together with the book’s underlying thesis that Kosovo Albanians have to become subjects of their own history, rather than victims in someone else’s, the anti-imperialist flavour of this way of thinking appears clearly enough.

But we cannot leave things at that, for when we look at what Žižek has to say more generally, we begin to see good reason to question the depth of this anti-imperialism.

In particular, let us recall Žižek’s nonchalant suggestion that “foreign help” might be needed to “prevent explosions”, thereby smoothing the implementation of his grand partition plan. Needless to say, this “foreign help” is unlikely to come from Guatemala or Papua New Guinea. It is more likely to come from one or other of the imperialist powers, and to think that Žižek did not have that arch-imperialist interventionist, the US, together its Western European acolytes, in mind here would surely be naïve.

This raises the broader question of Žižek’s attitude towards imperialist intervention in the Balkans as Yugoslavia collapsed. For we know that for much of the 1990s, he unequivocally supported such intervention. In 1995, Žižek told the Dutch-Australian academic, Geert Lovink, “…I have always been in favour of military intervention from the West”.[25]

However, the Kosovo War of 1999 appears to have triggered something of a crise de confiance, giving rise to much ambiguity and equivocation on his part.

Here an article Žižek wrote that year is relevant. ‘Against the Double Blackmail’ (much of which is extracted in Žižek’s essay in From Myth to Symptom) originally appeared on the Internet while the US-led NATO bombing of Milošević’s rump Yugoslavia was in full flow. Although Žižek’s basic point was a refusal to choose between NATO and Milošević, the article contained the following, notorious line, “So, precisely as a Leftist, my answer to the dilemma “Bomb or not?” is: not yet ENOUGH bombs, and they are TOO LATE”.[26]

Žižek then proceeded to attack the West for its Hamlet-like procrastination in bombing the Serbs. Just as Hamlet had hesitated to revenge his father, deciding upon action too late, with disastrous consequences – he killed his murderous stepfather, but also his mother and himself, among others – the West had likewise hesitated to bomb the Serbs. The decision to act over Kosovo was now too little, too late, with potentially disastrous, Hamlet-like, consequences for all concerned. If only, Žižek was telling us, the West had bombed the Serbs earlier and heavier.

Precisely what he meant by all this is not clear, not least because Žižek did not make it clear but, given that these words were written in the midst of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, we can reasonably surmise that he was hinting at the failure of the West to take the fight to Serbia earlier in the 1990s. If so, Žižek here attempted to pull off the bewilderingly tortuous trick of supporting the imperialist bombing of Serbia earlier in the 1990s in order to justify opposing it in 1999!

Needless to say, this is hardly an anti-imperialist argument; it is, in fact, an argument about the timing and character of imperialist bombing worthy of any dissident pro-Western strategist. And because, in Žižek’s considered military-political judgment, both timing and character were wrong, he opposed the bombing, or so it seemed, as we shall see. But this entirely circumstantial opposition – bombing is wrong now, you should have done it earlier – is surely the weakest and most ambiguous way of opposing an imperialist war, as one has already conceded, as Žižek did, that imperialist bombing is sound in principle.

The slippery ambiguity of this argument, and the accompanying suspicion that Žižek was more sympathetic to the Kosovo War, became clear in an interview Žižek gave to the English daily newspaper, The Independent, in late April, only a few days after ‘Against the Double Blackmail’ had appeared.

Titled ‘The Books Interview: the giant of Ljubjlana’, the article’s deck explained, “Slavoj Zizek, Slovenia’s superstar philosopher, backs the war against his ex-bosses. Guy Mannes-Abbott met him.” Reading on, we discover that Mannes-Abbott had found Žižek in a rather more ebullient and forthright mood. He reported, “Today, Zizek lambasts “the interminable procrastination” of Western governments and says that “I definitely support the bombing” of Milosevic’s regime by Nato”.[27]

Only a month later, in late May, Žižek was in New York where, at a bookstore appearance, he gave another tangled twist to his equivocation. According to the American journalist, broadcaster, and publisher of the Left Business Observer, Doug Henwood, Žižek stated that while he opposed NATO’s bombing, he supported the “total occupation” of Serbia, though without revealing how or by whom.[28] Again, it is rather unlikely that Žižek was thinking of Guatemala or Papua New Guinea as potential occupiers.

This toing and froing shows Žižek struggling to reach a consistent view on one of the key questions in the Balkans in recent times – whether to be, or not to be, for imperialism. Given his more recent suggestion that “foreign help” might be needed to implement his partition plan, but his simultaneous critique of the racist form that neo-imperial ideology takes in places like Kosovo, there is reason to believe that this is a struggle Žižek has yet to satisfactorily resolve.

It might just be, of course, that Žižek wants to have his cake and eat it by being for and/or against imperialism, as and when he feels the article or audience requires.[29] On the other hand, it might also be that what we are witnessing here is the politically disabling hesitation of our very own Hamlet, a hesitation likely rooted in his view of who was to blame for the war in ex-Yugoslavia.

Žižek versus Badiou on the Balkans

In tandem with his ambiguity and equivocation over the issue of imperialist intervention in the Balkans, Žižek has also been quick to excoriate the “alleged” radical Left for its “pseudo-Leftist position” on the war in ex-Yugoslavia.[30] Here one of his targets has been none other than his erstwhile philosopher-comrade, Alain Badiou, a man Žižek has called a latter-day Plato. Despite their philosophical closeness, and the way in which Žižek has, as we have seen, drawn on Badiou for his analysis of Kosovo, the two have, in fact, been poles apart politically on the Balkans.

Žižek’s critique of Badiou’s position is illuminating, above all because it allows us to see how Badiou approaches these issues from a quite different, and altogether superior, vantage point. For unlike Žižek, Badiou has been, and remains, an uncompromising opponent of both imperialist intervention in the Balkans and local nationalists.

In From Myth to Symptom, Žižek targets Badiou for his argument that there were no essential differences between the warring nationalisms in ex-Yugoslavia that justified supporting one side over the other. As evidence, Žižek cites Badiou’s Le Monde article, ‘La Sainte-Alliance et ses serviteurs’[31] [The Holy Alliance and its servants], of May 1999, including this extract:

“The Serb nationalism is worthless. But in what [way] is it worse than others? It is more broad, more expanded, more armed, it had without any doubt more occasions to exercise its criminal passion. But this only depends on circumstances. /…/ Let us suppose that, tomorrow, the KLA of the Kosovar nationalists will take power: can one imagine that one Serb will remain in Kosovo? Outside the victimising rhetorics, we haven’t seen one good political reason to prefer a Kosovar (or Croat, or Albanian, or Slovene, or Muslim-Bosnian) nationalist to the Serb nationalist.”[32]

For Žižek, this is misguided, for Badiou fails to place the blame for war squarely on Milošević’s Serbia. As Žižek once put it, as a sub-title, “It Was Serbian Aggression Alone, and Not Ethnic Conflict, That Set off the War”, a view that gives us an insight into the likely root reason for Žižek’s equivocation over imperialism in the Balkans.[33]

But it is surely a strange interpretation of Badiou’s argument to claim that he failed to recognise Serbia’s horrendous role in the bloody conflict over Yugoslavia. An honest reading of the above extract, not to mention the article as a whole, should make that clear.[34]

In fact, Badiou’s argument was a subtle one. He clearly appreciated the quantitative differences between the various nationalisms (the Serbs were, after all, stronger), but denied that these differences were so significant as to justify a qualitative distinction between the nationalism of the Serbs and that of the others, and thus support for one side over the other. All the combatants were, in the end, after their own selfish, nationalist goals, with each prepared to use appalling means in pursuit of them, even if these means were not evenly distributed.

But instead of addressing the subtlety of this argument, Žižek shies away from it by Machiavellian means, that is, by failing to quote Badiou fairly or fully. If we go back to Žižek’s above quotation from Badiou, the fourth sentence is followed by a set of dots /…/ indicating an ellipsis, or an omission. What, we wonder, did Žižek leave out here?

In fact, it was this short passage of two sentences: “When, armed to the teeth by the Americans, the Croats swept down on the Krajina, where the Serbs were the majority, there were two hundred thousand Serb refugees in a few days. Did we see the dignitaries of our ethical journalism propose the immediate bombing of Zagreb?”

Croatia’s Operation Storm took place in 1995 when, as we have seen, Žižek unequivocally supported foreign military intervention, at least against the Serbs. One is therefore tempted to ask: did Žižek propose the immediate bombing of Zagreb? Or did he, perhaps, decide that relative silence on the matter was the wiser option?

In any event, it is not difficult to decipher the logic behind Žižek’s dubious way with citation – that is, his junking of Badiou’s two brief sentences about Croatia’s mass ethnic cleansing: Operation Storm speaks volumes for Badiou’s argument, but somewhat inconveniences his own, to put it mildly.

As we have glimpsed, Badiou’s article showed a clear understanding of the mutually cynical interrelationship between imperialism and nationalism during Yugoslavia’s collapse, enabling him to see how, for example, the US backed Croatia’s mass ethnic cleansers of the Krajina in order to help defeat the Serb mass murderers of Srebrenica.[35]

But Badiou’s article went further than this, in part because of this clear understanding. He proposed a quite different, and altogether superior, vision for the Balkans, one that Žižek fails to mention, let alone address.

Badiou wrote that we should call on “the peoples of the region, regardless of their “ethnicity” or nationality, to devise here and now the reconstitution of a Balkan Federation, to reunite around this goal, to fight long and hard against all nationalisms. The first act in an initiative of this kind would be to repudiate any external military intervention. It is time to restore lustre to the principles that governed the classic epoch of national liberation: it is only by relying on its own strengths that a people can regulate its own affairs by political means. And, in this way, small peoples will be able act independently of the Great Powers.”

This is a powerful vision, expressed with characteristic nerve and verve. Unlike many, Badiou has remained true to the driving spirit of the great national liberation struggles of the last century. For his vision is imbued with the idea that we in the Balkans can recover our dignity and self-respect by standing on our own feet, instead of hobbling on our knees before imperialism.

But, small as we are, this is feasible only if we stand on our own feet together, and standing together necessarily entails opposing our own nationalists; for it is their bloody internecine schemes that have divided us and thus opened the gateways to foreign intervention and neo-colonial tutelage. In present circumstances, the institutional form this will need to take is the Balkan Federation, for it is the best currently available framework within which we can become, and remain, self-determining subjects.

In this way, Badiou’s vision of a Balkan Federation demonstrates a far surer hold on politics than Žižek’s. “Difference,” Badiou has said, “is what there is. People, as well as nations, are necessarily different. The problem is to know how to produce sameness. This is a very important point…A truly great politics aims, rather, at producing a unity with differentiated material. This was, after all, the supreme goal of internationalism: there are cultures, civilisations, and nations, but ultimately you have to set yourself up at the point where all that doesn’t prevent you from acting together politically.”[36]

By contrast, Žižek’s grand partition plan would do the very opposite. It would ‘set us up’ at the point where difference – the difference of national identity – would inevitably become the all-consuming issue of the day, making it impossible to act together politically. And it would, as a result, ‘set us up’ at the point where further imperialist intervention in some shape or form would likely follow, as it did during the collapse of Yugoslavia, with all the multiple indignities we know “foreign help” brings in its wake. Despite Žižek’s intentions, this is no way to become self-determining subjects; on the contrary, this is how we will be typecast, yet again, as victim-objects.

Let us not then repeat the symbiotic cycle of national division and imperialist intervention that has been the miserable staple of our history! For this is what Žižek’s grand partition plan and his decidedly undecided ‘anti-imperialism’ threaten to drag us back to. Only one idea allows us to break free of this bloodily repetitive cycle, and this is the Idea of a Balkan Federation.

Žižek’s failure to pursue this Balkan-wide perspective is also visible in his “very reactionary” vision for Kosovo’s immediate future.

Žižek: Some “very reactionary” advice for Kosovo

In Kosovo Interview, in response to a question from Hamza, Žižek seized the opportunity to dispense some advice on what Kosovo Albanians should be focusing their energies on today. He said:

“The thing to do for you is, I think, for you – it may sound very reactionary even – but I think it’s the best thing – to focus on the economy, ok, it’s crucial – but primarily for me it’s to get out of this colonising predicament of being taken care of, to start building your own – not grounded in any national difficulty, roots, where all are, meets, Albanians, Serbs, whoever – strong state apparatus. This is so important.” And he added:

“You should do [the] opposite of what we were all fearing under communism when we were saying against bureaucratic socialism, you need as much Weber, good state bureaucracy, create the state apparatus, and you will be able to do things.”

Let us leave aside Žižek’s comment for this “strong state apparatus” to include Albanians and Serbs, for this is, after all, the very same interview in which he argued so brutally for the partition of Kosovo between them. How Žižek imagines these starkly incompatible plans working together is a matter we should, perhaps, leave to him to ponder.

More importantly, we see here Žižek’s attempt at an answer to the question of how Kosovo Albanians can again become subjects of their own history, rather than colonised victims in someone else’s.

But, as with his partition plans, his answer remains dismally trapped within the narrow confines of nationalist thinking, with his focus on the importance of a “strong state apparatus” and a “good state bureaucracy”. One wonders how, in its essentials, this project differs from what Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, wants. He doubtless wants what Žižek wants, a “strong state apparatus”, though he prefers, for the foreseeable future, to build it from under the bed sheets of colonial rule.

In any event, the sorry illusion that accompanies this national state-building project is surely Žižek’s claim that, as a result, “you will be able to do things”. Apart from those nationalists who have ingested a hefty dose of megalomania, does anyone honestly and sincerely believe that, even with a “good state bureaucracy”, one of the poorest and smallest of Balkan statelets, surrounded by hostile neighbours and prey to Western imperialism, “will be able to do things” of any significance?

Žižek here ignores what Badiou understands: that the Kosovo Albanians, like all nations in the Balkans, can become subjects only to the extent that they do so together with others. The question of political subjectivity in the Balkans is necessarily, therefore, a question of political intersubjectivity.

But we also have to ask where Žižek’s national-statist answer would leave the embryonic Left in Kosovo. Should they be demanding a “strong state apparatus”? Should they, in fact, become cheerleaders for national state-building? Should they therefore rally behind ‘their own’ state?

It is difficult to see how, with this as its goal, the embryonic Left would ever be able to develop an emancipatory politics for Kosovo in order to emerge into public life as the defender of the oppressed. Indeed, rather than help give birth to such a politics, Žižek’s advice, if followed, would likely abort it. In fact, his advice does not just sound “very reactionary”; it is “very reactionary”.

(To be continued)

Serbian flags are seen near the main bridge in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica


[25] ‘Reflections of Media and Politics and Cinema’, 20.06.1995, available at http://www.lacan.com/zizek-reflections.htm

[26] ‘Against the Double Blackmail’, 07.04.1999, available at http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/critical-realism/1999m04/msg00008.html. The history of this notorious line is itself notorious. It was excluded from the version of the article published in New Left Review I/234, March-April 1999, as well as from the extracts in From Myth to Symptom, op.cit. The editors of a selection of Žižek’s writings, Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, published the original version, but rather tactfully noted that the NLR version was “interestingly” different, given various omissions, see The Universal Exception, London and New York, Continuum, 2006, p.266. Sean Homer argues, rightly in our view, that a sophisticated Lacanian interpretation of this line is something of a smokescreen for Žižek’s ambiguous position on the Kosovo War, see his ‘It’s the political economy, stupid! On Žižek’s Marxism’, Radical Philosophy 108, July/August 2001, p.12

[27] ‘The Books Interview: the giant of Ljubljana’, 24.04.1999, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-books-interview-the-giant-of-ljubljana-1089193.html (our italics)

[28] ‘Zizek: Occupy Serbia!’, 28.05.1999, available at http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/1999/1999- May/009941.html. Henwood has interviewed Žižek since and is a reliable source.

[29] Or as Ian Parker, the author of Žižek: A Critical Introduction, London and Sterling, Pluto Press, 2004, has explained, “he [Žižek] is rather torn between wanting to say what he thinks his audience wants to hear and wanting to appear to be the radical guy who provokes his audience.” Personal email to Dragan Plavšić, 10.09.2013

[30] From Myth to Symptom, op.cit., p.22

[31] ‘La Sainte-Alliance et ses serviteurs’, 20.05.1999. This article is now available, in French, at http://tombeauunef.free.fr/csag/badiou.htm (all translations ours, with the exception of the extracts Žižek uses in From Myth to Symptom, op.cit., the translations of which are presumably his). In this context, see too Badiou’s ‘On the War against Serbia: Who Strikes Whom in the World Today?’ in Polemics, London and New York, Verso, 2006, pp.62-72, where he makes similar points. Žižek accuses Badiou of a certain nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia, a charge that appears to have some validity. However, although Žižek is right that we must dispense with it, Yugo-nostalgia does not invalidate Badiou’s arguments for a Balkan Federation, just as his Maoist and ultra-leftist tendencies do not invalidate his philosophy.

[32] From Myth to Symptom, op.cit., pp.20-21.

[33] ‘NATO, the left hand of God’, 29.06.1999, available at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/nato-the-left-hand-of-god/, is the original, shorter version of Žižek’s article in From Myth to Symptom. During the 1990s, Bosniak, Croatian and Kosovo Albanian nationalists allied themselves with US imperialism in order to defeat the Serbian nationalists. Perhaps Žižek found it difficult to resist the lure of this logic, which may also help explain why his anti-imperialism waxes and wanes the closer it gets to the Balkans.

[34] Žižek himself quotes Badiou’s assessment that “Sure, Milošević is a brutish nationalist, as are all his colleagues from Croatia, Bosnia and Albania” From Myth to Symptom, op.cit., pp.20-21

[35] The extent of US backing for Zagreb’s Operation Storm was well detailed by the late Croatian journalist, Ivo Pukanić, in his article, ‘US Role in Storm’, 24.05.2005, originally published in the Croatian weekly, Nacional, and now available, in English, at http://cryptome.org/us-op-storm.htm

[36] Philosophy and the Event, op.cit., p.41 (our italics)

 

5 Responses to Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Part 3)

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