Universal Horror

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.

– James Baldwin 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Slavoj Žižek has responded to Hamid Dabashi’s piece, ‘Fuck You Žižek!’, which as you can imagine was sent to me by quite a few people, considering my recent history with the Slovenian. In his reply, he is joined by the young philosopher Michael Marder (editor of The Philosophical Salon), who also came under Dabashi’s fire, in the course of he latter’s general attack on Eurocentrism in philosophy.

Žižek’s portion of this short response is in fact largely taken from another piece, also entitled ‘The Breakdown of Rational Argumentation’, published in the International Journal of Žižek Studies in response to (friend of this blog) Sam Kriss. It seems that, whenever someone strongly disagrees with Žižek online, his current favoured approach is to claim rational argumentation itself has broken down. It’s a bold strategy, but does it pay off for him?

Žižek’s main criticism of Dabashi here is that he mistakenly attributes a section of text by Frantz Fanon to Žižek himself. It’s a careless and embarrassing mistake, which betrays the fact that Dabashi has an incompetent (or most likely deferential) editor, but this only makes it exactly as bad as most things Žižek has published in the last decade. In fact, to reduce Dabashi’s argument to this glaring error doesn’t do much to address his major point, which of course he has sustained over the length of a book (Can Non-Europeans Think, from which the piece is taken).

In truth, Dabashi is an anti-philosopher, in the precise sense, and philosophy must rise to the challenge posed by anti-philosophy, as it has always had to. As Alain Badiou defines it, “Anti-philosophy is any system of thought which opposes the singularity of its experience to the properly philosophical category of truth.” Many of the great thinkers of history have been anti-philosophers: Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Dabashi’s is the classic anti-philosophical move of contrasting philosophy’s claim to a universal discourse of truth to the historical and geographical particularity of certain philosophers. And so he writes: “Young European philosophers like Zabala and Marder, who think that as Europeans they own the world of ideas, feign the authority of their colonial forebears as if anything anyone says anywhere in the world is about them.” Or, more generally, in the original Al Jazeera essay that spawned the book: “There is thus a direct and unmitigated structural link between an empire, or an imperial frame of reference, and the presumed universality of a thinker thinking in the bosoms of that empire.”

To his credit, Marder points out the obvious shortcoming here: any critique that proceeds from a presumption about the identity, and concomitant privilege, of the person speaking, is doomed to fail. Marder is himself from an Eastern-European Jewish background, and his ‘forebears’ were killed in pogroms and concentration camps. Does that fact mean his thought is more ‘authentic’? Less ‘Eurocentric’? Must we know the biography of any theorist whose work we pick up – a conclusion which seems backward, not to mention intensely reactionary? As a good friend of mine once put it, “if demand for authenticity means that we have to flash our credentials like we’re going through customs and make our personal lives public before expressing an opinion, then maybe ideology is winning out.” Art and philosophy are supposed to be the antidotes to this kind of thinking. As Ralph Wiley famously put it, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” By contrast, Dabashi’s mode of critique – proceed first from identity, then to thought – is exactly what reproduces the very thing he has railed against, which is the relegation of literature (philosophical and otherwise) from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to the status of a particularity, of a special interest group which must be taken separately, as its own canon (ethnographic or postcolonial). It must be maintained that a work by Aimé Césaire or Chinua Achebe or V.S. Naipaul has as much of a claim to inclusion in the universal canon of human culture as anything else. Perhaps Dabashi should take more note of the words of his own intellectual hero, Edward Said:

“Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and – centrally important – it is not exhausted by totalizing theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs. If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experience around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.”

Dabashi’s thought, by contrast, tends towards statements like this:

“There are emerging measures of truth from four corners of the world, from the cyberspace to the outer space, with fragile earth and a deeply vulnerable humanity in between. We need to allow these realities to expose themselves and teach us how to read them. From Plato and Aristotle (who saw themselves as Greek, not as “European”), down to subsequent generations of thinkers and philosophers: they were reading their own time, with little to no attention to what their predecessors had said. We too need to do as they did—though with a far more cautionary attitude not to universalise too much our passing particulars.”

It hardly needs to be said that this is bullshit. There can be no “measures of truth”, there are only truths themselves, which proceed via fidelity, not ‘measurement’; indeed, how could a truth, eternal and outside the predicates of any one historical situation, be submitted to measurement? Then there is the astonishing move of particularizing Plato and Aristotle, who very explicitly were speaking from the position of what was (is) universal, and not what was specific to “their own time”; moreover Dabashi references other unnamed philosophers who have, like the Greeks, apparently paid “little to no attention to what their predecessors had said”; this certainly isn’t true of Plato or Aristotle, whose philosophy is conceptualised as a break with their predecessors that certainly takes the latter into account – look, for example at both’s repeated engagement with their predecessor Heraclitus. The truth is that to do philosophy is to do the history of philosophy, and the solution to Eurocentrism in the academy is not to reject the contributions made by the canonical philosophers. It is impossible not to sympathize with Dabashi’s complaint that non-European thought has been ignored, or relegated to an object of ethnography, but the solution is not yet more particularism. Indeed, it is not far to go from the idea that philosophers should pay no attention to their own predecessors to Dabashi’s next step, a warning “not to universalise too much our passing particulars”, which is really just another form of the general weakening of philosophy to the status of perspectivism. Here it might be best to point to Badiou again, who writes:

“…[I]t is necessary to maintain that every universal presents itself not as a regularization of the particular or of differences, but as a singularity that is subtracted from identitarian predicates; although obviously it proceeds via those predicates. The subtraction of particularities must be opposed to their supposition. But if a singularity can lay claim to the universal by subtraction, it is because the play of identitarian predicates, or the logic of those forms of knowledge that describe particularity, precludes any possibility of foreseeing or conceiving it.”

Dabashi is unable to think the universal precisely because he remains attached to a preoccupation with identitarian predicates, with the position from which someone is speaking. A universal is never a sublation of a particularity, but a subtraction from all particularities. In other words, a piece of art or science is universal as a result of the fact that no predicate can pin it down: Greek tragedy speaks to us today because it is not primarily a meditation on the particular experience of an ancient Athenian, but of a human being tout court; James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room – about a homosexual love affair, and written by a gay black man – is as universal a love story as Romeo and Juliet. To collapse a universal truth into an identity is to deny it all of its potency. As Badiou puts it, with a more overtly political edge, in an interview with Peter Hallward (and this long section is worth quoting in full):

“When I hear people say ‘we are oppressed as blacks, as women’, I have only one problem: what exactly is meant by ‘black’ or ‘women’? … Can this identity, in itself, function in a progressive fashion, that is, other than as a property invented by the oppressors themselves? … I understand very well what ‘black’ means for those who use that predicate in a logic of differentiation, oppression, and separation, just as I understand very well what ‘French’ means when Le Pen uses the word, when he champions national preference, France for the French, exclusion of Arabs, etc. … Negritude, for example, as incarnated by Césaire and Senghor, consisted essentially of reworking exactly those traditional predicates once used to designate black people: as intuitive, as natural, as primitive, as living by rhythm rather than by concepts, etc. … I understand why this kind of movement took place, why it was necessary. It was a very strong, very beautiful, and very necessary movement. But having said that, it is not something that can be inscribed as such in politics. I think it is a matter of poetics, of culture, of turning the subjective situation upside down. It doesn’t provide a possible framework for political initiative.


The progressive formulation of a cause which engages cultural or communal predicates, linked to incontestable situations of oppression and humiliation, presumes that we propose these predicates, these particularities, these singularities, these communal qualities, in such a way that they be situated in another space and become heterogeneous to their ordinary oppressive operation. I never know in advance what quality, what particularity, is capable of becoming political or not; I have no preconceptions on that score. What I do know is that there must be a progressive meaning to these particularities, a meaning that is intelligible to all. Otherwise, we have something which has its raison d’être, but which is necessarily of the order of a demand for integration, that is, of a demand that one’s particularity be valued in the existing state of things …

That there is a remnant or a support of irreducible particularity, is something I would acknowledge for any kind of reality … But in the end, between this particularity present in the practical, concrete support of any political process, and the statements in the name of which the political process unfolds, I think there is only a relation of support, but not a relation of transitivity. You can’t go from the one to the other, even if one seems to be ‘carried’ by the other … It is not because a term is a communal predicate, nor even because there is a victim in a particular situation, that it is automatically, or even easily, transformed into a political category.”

In short, “the existence of victims cannot by itself found a political process”. Dabashi himself comes close to a point like this when he encourages a movement “beyond postcoloniality”, beyond an ideology of reaction to the terms laid down by Europeans.

“There is a new condition beyond postcoloniality that these Europeans cannot read, hard as they try to assimilate it back into the condition of coloniality. The task is not a mere critique of neo-Orientalism, which always is commensurate with immediate and short-sighted political interests, but to overcome “Europe” as an idea and make it behave as one among any number of other exhausted metaphors, neither less nor more potent, organic, or trustworthy. Europe was “the invention of the Third World,” as Fanon fully realized – both in material and normative senses of the term. I have already argued that we need to change the interlocutor with whom we discuss the terms of our emerging worlds. We should no longer address a dead interlocutor. Europe is dead. Long live Europeans. The Islam they had invented in their Orientalism is dead. Long live Muslims. The Orient they had created, the Third World they had crafted to rule and denigrate, have disappeared. If only those who still see themselves as Orientals would begin to decolonize their minds too.

Ironically, this point, and especially the last sentence, which I have italicized, reads as markedly Hegelian to me, relating to a point in the unfolding of the dialectic described in the Science of Logic, which is summarized pithily in the statement “the activity is essentially reactive against itself”. In his Theory of the Subject Badiou takes up this point, writing that “an individual only arrives at his or her singular force within the given circumstances by entering into conflict with the network of inert habits to which these circumstances previously confined him or her”, and thus that we must “come to understand that what raises me up reactively against the active of the Other must also be the active of a force in which the Other is no longer represented”. But of course, Dabashi would chide me for relating his words back to philosophers working in the apparently homogenous Western tradition. He tells us we must learn “to read other thinkers’ thoughts without assimilating them backward into what they already know – like learning a new language that has its own grammar, syntax, and morphology. We should not approximate and assimilate the new language we are learning back into the grammar of the language we already know.” This is a lofty prescription, but even in spite of its hermeneutic ambition, we might ask ourselves whether Dabashi himself follows through on what he encourages from us. Take this paragraph for example, from the ‘Fuck You Žižek!’ essay:

“The transmutation of classical Orientalism to Area Studies and thence into disposable knowledge produced at US and European think tanks, I propose, was coterminous with the rise of an empire without hegemony. This epistemic endosmosis – or interested knowledge manufactured in think tanks and percolating into the public domain – is, I suggest, conducive to various modes of disposable knowledge production, predicated on no enduring or coherent episteme, but in fact modeled on disposable commodities that provide instant gratification and are then disposed of after one use only.”

Does this Foucauldian discourse, composed in what has been the lingua franca of postcolonial theory for decades, really represent the embracing of a new language free from contamination by the familiar frameworks of European critique, or does it in fact represent the absolute status quo of the academy, the academy of which Dabashi, installed in his Chair at Columbia, could only be called an elite member? Let us end by returning to Badiou, and to a profound and beautiful statement hidden about halfway through Theory of the Subject. It is perhaps even more pertinent now than when it was written, and it bears returning to it time and time again, as a mantra for what must be avoided and what must be done.

“Hand over education to those who got tired of antagonism, to all those who, after joining their fate to that of the workers, have since then come back to their prescribed place as intellectuals, and you will make the wish of state functionaries come true by keeping thought for the next two decades within the narrow confines of the usual course of affairs. It will be everyone for him or herself, nobody will pretend to speak for anyone whatsoever.

This is the surest road towards the worst. When one abdicates universality, one obtains universal horror.

With regard to this mediocre challenge I see two attitudes among the different people I know: to defend oneself or change oneself.”


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