Zizek and the American Indian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 23 13:39:39 MST 2003

Am midway through Peter McLaren's brilliant critique of Zizek, which is by
no means unfriendly. Even his characterization of Zizek as having insights
that are "those of a night crawler, a hyena on methaphetamine" is meant as
a compliment. (I was reminded of the time when Basil Fawlty called his wife
Sybil a praying mantis on Dexedrine.) I must say, however, that when I ran
across Peter's discussion of Zizek's views on the American Indian, I was
spurred to say something right away. For the life of me, I cannot
understand why superstar Marxists feel compelled to bash the American
Indian. In David Harvey's boneheaded "Justice, Nature and the Geography of
Difference," there's a thoroughly repellent equation made between Indian
land claims and Nazi nature worship. As you will see below in the excerpt
from Peter's article, the same sort of red herring is being raised by the
Lacanian post-Marxist. When Zizek says that indigenous peoples were as
"bad" as we were, he is simply peddling the same line found in Shepherd
Krech's awful "The Ecological Indian" that puts an equal sign between stone
age hunting and the systematic destruction of the Northern Prairies flora
and fauna by capitalist developers. I plan to track down this bit of
nonsense by Zizek and put in my own two cents. Meanwhile, here's Peter:


There is no gainsaying that Zizek develops an important point when he
claims that a fundamental dimension of Eurocentrism is premised on the
belief that "we were somehow deprived of some original jewel of wisdom that
is then to be sought elsewhere," a process that leads to a false evaluation
of the other (this is similar to the way in which the progressive academic
in the West "needs the dream that there is another place where they have
the authentic revolution so that they can be authentic through an Other")
(Olson and Worsham 261, 270). Admittedly, it is difficult to argue against
the idea that at the bloody heart of racism and patriarchy exists ideal
Otherness. I am prepared to give some credit to the notion that a false
elevation of the Other can be problematic on a number of fronts. For
example, such an uncritical elevation of the Other has instanced forms of
idealization that have had a troubling history, the Nazi idealization of
the German peasant being a case in point. And then there arc those
paradoxical instances of a different register, such as certain Afrocentric
ethnosociological readings of Egyptian civilization, often paradoxically
deriving their claims and methods from European sources, and sometimes
unconsciously utilizing European epistemologics to validate non-European
ones, while simultaneously denigrating European epistemologies. And we are
also faced with the chronic dilemma of the romanticization of cultures that
have been "disappeared" by European settlers and with the cultural
appropriation of marginalized groups by Euro-Americans. In a similar vein,
one also thinks of Ruth Beebe Hill's novel, Hanta Yo, and her depiction of,
in the words of Ward Churchill, "the collectivist spirituality of the
nineteenth-century Lakota as nothing so much as a living prefiguration of
her friend Ayn Rand's grossly individualistic cryptofascism" (100). Not to
mention the poet, Gary Snyder, who sometimes pretends to see the world
through the eyes of an American Indian "shaman," and Lynn Andrews, "an
airhead 'feminist' yuppie"' who has been putatively charged by the power of
Jaguar Woman and sent forth "to write a series of books so outlandish in
their pretensions as to make [Carlos] Castaneda seem a model of propriety
by comparison" (Churchill 100, 101). But when Zizek makes the claim in the
interview that indigenous peoples were "as bad as we," he appears to shift
the goalposts (261). It is an unfortunate statement, and if I were not
familiar with many of his numerous works, I would be tempted to claim that
here lie is establishing a false equivalence between the elevation of the
symbolic Other and the elevation of the real Other. While his remark
assumes a selective affinity among himself and his interviewers
(presupposing a mainly Euro-American readership of JAC), it also appears to
endorse an "us-versus-them" positionality.

Zizek runs into serious problems that seemingly he is unable to surmount
when he makes the claim that Native Americans were "as bad as we" arc and
other such claims. However, upon closer examination, and in reading this
statement in the context of his other works, he appears to be doing
something quite different. By arguing that Native Americans were "as bad as
we," he is not trying to render American Indians "normal" like he and his
fellow Europeans, which would be an absurd (not to mention pernicious)
move; rather, he is trying to underscore how ideology works by
incorporating the Other within itselfin this case, so that the dominant
white majority can recognize its secret longings in the Other that
historically it has all but vanquished (261). Whereas his comments in the
interview appear contradictory, they are more clearly expressed in his
written work. For instance, in a recent essay he claims that it is
precisely in the struggle against Eurocentrism by Euro-American liberal
multiculturalists that another and more devious species of racism is
produced. One such struggle is embodied in the false elevation of the
Other. The myth of Native Americans living in undisturbed balance with
nature instead of trying to dominate and transform it is, he claims, the
ultimate racist myth, because it implicitly reduces Native Americans "to
beings who, like animals, left no traces of themselves on their land, while
'aggressive' Western man cultivates it" ("Repeating" 76). What he does not
sufficiently elaborate on is the way in which the false elevation of the
Other works in conjunction with the imperial demonization of the Other.
What he could have emphasized in his critique of liberal multiculturalism
is the motivated amnesia of the European colonizers and ruling
dictator-ships everywhere who have attempted to erase the traces of 'los
olvidados' whom they now "showcase" as a display of their morally elevated
"tolerance." One of the most powerful ways exercised by the ruling classes
for erasing the traces of a people whom they have slaughtered and whom they
continue to exploit is to erase their memories.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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