Slavoj Zizek and Black America: Zizek Visits the ‘Tavis Smiley Show’

When you make jokes about black culture, the wrong people laugh at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. Slavoj Zizek tells Tavis Smiley why... sort of.

Bo Jackson’s got a good joke about white people.

In the 30-for-30 episode “You Don’t Know Bo”, Jackson says that since his hip replacement he’s not as fast as he used to be, so when he goes bear hunting anymore he’s always sure he takes a white guy with him. That way if something goes wrong on the hunt, he doesn’t have to outrun the bear. He’s only got to outrun the white guy.

I was reminded of this joke while watching Slavoj Zizek on the Tavis Smiley Show. I tuned in expecting a ranting, sweating, beard-groping performance from the clown prince of cultural theory, full of broad leaps in logic and scattershot dialectical reasoning, and I was not disappointed. The pairing of Tavis Smiley and Zizek would seem an odd one, with Smiley so rooted in the black American experience while Zizek remains committed to a Bolshevik-Lacanian programme of cultural interpretation, but what I found both frustrating and provocative in this conversation were the moments of intersection between European theory and black America. This leads me to the Bo Jackson joke, but first let me lay down Zizek’s chief point, which came up when Smiley asked him about the continuing plague of mass shootings in America.

Zizek responded that we Americans shouldn’t “blame” ourselves “too much” for these shootings. “Maybe, just maybe, this explosion of violence with guns and so on that you get from time to time are collateral damage of some attitude towards freedom and so on, which is in itself not so bad.”

This, of course, from an “old-fashioned” Marxist who poses in his bedroom with portraits of Josef Stalin. But as is usually the case with Zizek, the deeper you dig into his strange statements, the more you find yourself stuck in his rambling dialectic. To explain a bit further his comment about “collateral damage”, he takes one of his favorite examples:

“I found [a] wonderful symptom of where maybe you got it wrong,” Zizek continues (“you” meaning “Americans”). “Maybe I’m crazy to mention them, but I think they tell something. When I enter an American hotel or any building, for you, first floor is what for us Europeans, is a ground floor. For us, you climb to the first floor already. Maybe this is what’s wrong with you. You don’t see that in order to count one, two — you need the ground.”

It’s a favorite example of his, and what he means by this here is that personal freedom is a wonderful thing, but America’s amplification of it to an ethos necessarily entails an amplification of its worst aspects. Point taken.

More importantly, however, is that Zizek suggests America has no “ground” underneath personal freedom, nothing that supports it or explains it, nothing to categorize it, nothing through which to understand it as anything other than the fundamental element of American life. The absence of another field in which “personal freedom” is understood as simply one concept among many leads to our assumption that “personal freedom” is always right, can never be impinged, and must be accepted in any situation without questions. This embrace of freedom — not necessarily a terrible thing, Zizek insists — will naturally lead to the spasms of violence we now, and have always, experienced in America. But what America is missing, Zizek suggests, is manners.

American life, for Zizek, is built upon a belief that we are free, but free from what? From the constraints of the cultural baggage that hamstring European society. Americans may go where we please, say what we want, and spend our money however we choose. Of course none of this is objectively true, but Zizek doesn’t traffic in objectivity — his point is that our obsession with personal freedom is the “American ideology”.

Manners, those tedious, vague and shifting moral codes, would provide Americans with an understanding of value as contingent upon the situation.This, Zizek argues, is the true essence of positive human behavior: interactions between people that play with the slippage of rules, not those interactions governed by the recognition and enforcement of said rules.To further illustrate what he’s talking about, Zizek offers up an example of what he calls “progressive racism”:

I remember a fond memory of my country which disappeared in civil war, ex country Yugoslavia. Before racial tensions exploded, when I was young, ’60s, ’70s… each nation was identified with a certain racial cliché. We Slovenes were misers, Montenegro people were lazy and so on. And when I talked to my friends, it wasn’t telling racist jokes so much against the “other”. It was we were competing in the friendly way who will tell a nastier joke about one’s self, about myself. And we didn’t experience these racial clichés as insulting, but there’s something in a wonderful, comical spirit…

This is the sort of stuff from European theorists that drives me crazy. If I’ve got hear one more time about how modernity was presaged by the events of the Paris Commune I’ll throw my copy of The Coming Insurrection against the wall. But Zizek’s tone-deaf example here demonstrates, with typical aplomb, either ignorance or disregard of whole swaths of American history, providing us with yet another patronizing European diagnosis of America’s “problems”.

Enter Bo Jackson, the white guy, and the bear.

Jackson’s joke seems to fit what Zizek is talking about. It’s both racist and funny. It’s an old joke, certainly, and one that just as certainly turns on the stereotype of slow white people. But what really makes the joke land is that Bo Jackson is telling it. It immediately undercuts the image of the smiling athletic-savant so propagated by the multi-million dollar Nike campaigns that brought Jackson to national prominence, and it does this while still accepting the key facet of Jackson’s greatness: he is a preternaturally fast human being. But it also humanizes him further by reminding us that, as fast and as mean as Jackson may be, he’s not going to mess with a bear. Not even Bo Jackson would mess with a bear. That’s just crazy.

This fits Zizek’s description of “progressive racism” insofar as Jackson’s racist joke paradoxically makes us like Jackson more; it brings him closer to his audience, humanizing him through his recognition and his teasing invocation of racist stereotypes. So far so good. In America, however, this street simply doesn’t cut both ways.

To point out only the most glaring example of the last decade, Dave Chappelle infamously discovered that when you make jokes about black culture, the wrong people laugh at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. When Chappelle quit his show and walked away from $50 million, he did it to make sure he was he “dancing and not shuffling”; not falling, that is, into the very old, and very American, tradition of minstrelsy (John Farley, “On the Beach With Dave Chappelle”, Time, 15 May 2005).

Without knowledge of this long history of “can’t-you-just-take-a-joke?” American racism — a history as long as America itself — proscriptions and interpretations of American issues by Eurocentric thinkers such as Zizek serve principally to negate the value of their discourse.

When pressed on these issues by Smiley, Zizek said something equally as infuriating but also a little profound:

Zizek:…now, I provoke you as a black guy. My hero–sincerely, I’m not bluffing–is Malcolm X. You know why?

Tavis: Tell me why.

Zizek: Because of this Malcolm X, he had an ingenious insight which was at the top of contemporary philosophy. Namely, he wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, Roots. You remember that stupid TV series? The greatest honor for you blacks’ desire is to find some tribe in Africa. Oh, I’m from there. No. Of course, Malcolm X meant by the brutality of white men, being enslaved, we were deprived of our roots and so on.

But he wrote about it. But this X paradoxically opens up a new freedom for us, all that white people want to be, not primitive tribal, but universal, creating their own space. We, black people, have a unique chance not to become, not to return to our particular [inaudible], to be more universal, emancipated than white people themselves. You see, this is the important thing for me.”

Important in what way? How does Zizek understand the X? Adopting it to replace his former last name which he identified with the legacy of slavery, Malcolm X gave himself no new last name, but only a letter to indicate the location of where a last name should be. If a last name were to occur, the X indicates that it would occur there, in the empty place marked as such by the X. It is the space on which a place could begin; the ground floor, we could say, of an unbuilt structure. And so by tearing down his previous surname, Malcolm X tears down as well the endless floors of trauma and oppression built upon it, bringing himself back to the beginning of names from which we may, if we so choose, make a new name. It’s in his refusal to make a new name, to hold this space open as witness, that makes this move particularly “ingenious”. It’s in this way, Zizek suggests, that black Americans have carved from their own experience a new way to be in the world, one that is more truly universal — and indeed more American — than the assimilation-in-the-guise-of-integration imagined over the centuries by whites.

But when we talk about Malcolm X — especially in reference to “contemporary philosophy” — we are also obligated to recognize that he was killed decades ago by his own organization, his own people. To evoke him is not so different as evoking the Commune, or May of 1968, or even Lenin. All of these promised revolutions have by now become entangled in the manners — in the thick web of societal exchange — of the intervening decades, and so to look back to Malcolm X as an indication of a positive way forward comes off today as either ignorant, profound, or maybe like a racist joke, a little of both.

Cameron MacKenzie has a Ph.D. in Literature and has been published in SubStance, symploke, The Cormac McCarthy Journal, Permafrost, and The Michigan Quarterly Review, and has pieces in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective (Rodopi 2011) and Edward P. Jones: New Essays (Whetstone 2012).