Capitalism Woke

Clara Figueiredo, untitled, digital photomontage, 2017
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

Os Woke [awakened] wake us up – to racism and sexism – precisely to allow us to keep dreaming

There are those who say that the "wokeness” is in decline. In fact, it is gradually being normalized, embraced even by those who internally doubt it, and being practiced by most academic, business and state institutions. That is why it deserves, more than ever, our criticism – as does its opposite, the obscenity of new populism and religious fundamentalism.

Let's start with Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon's government took the causes Woke and LGBT (almost) to the last consequences. In December 2022, a “historic day for equality” was proclaimed when Scottish lawmakers approved plans to make it easier for individuals to legally switch their genders, extending the new self-identification system to 16- and 17-year-olds. Basically, you declare what you feel you are, and it registers as you want to be. A predictable problem arose when Isla Bryson, a biological male convicted of rape, was transferred to a women's prison in Stirling.

Isla Brynson decided he wasn't a man anymore after going to trial over rape allegations. So we have a person who identifies as a woman using his penis to rape two women. It's quite logical: if masculinity and femininity have nothing to do with a person's body, and everything to do with their subjective self-definition, then a rapist carrying a penis should be placed in a prison alongside imprisoned women. . After protests, Isla Bryson was placed in a men's prison. Again this is problematic for Scottish law as we now have a self-identified woman in a men's prison.

Nicola Sturgeon resigned from office because he alienated a portion of the population that is not anti-LGBT but simply rejects such measures. The main point here is that there is no easy solution, since sexual identity in itself is not a simple form of identity, but a complex dimension, full of inconsistencies and unconscious elements – something that cannot, in any way, be understood. somehow be established from a direct reference to how we feel.

The recent controversy surrounding the use of so-called puberty blockers involves another aspect of this same complexity: higher authorities have ordered the Tavistock clinic in London to restrict the use of these blockers, which inhibit hormones and, in this way, interrupt the development of characters sex in children, such as the breasts. Tavistock administered these drugs to young people between the ages of 9 and 16 who seemed unable to choose their sexual identity. The Tavistock clinicians argued that there is a danger that young people who cannot determine their sexual identity will make a forced decision under the pressure of their environment, thus repressing their true inclination (to be trans, in particular). Puberty blockers were needed to allow such young people to delay their entry into puberty, giving them more time to reflect on their sexual identity before making a decision about it at a more mature age.

Puberty blockers were given to virtually all children sent for evaluation at Tavistock, including autistic and 'problem' young people who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. In other words, life-altering treatments were given to vulnerable children before they were old enough to know whether they wanted to medically transition. As one of the critics put it, "A child experiencing gender anxieties needs time and support – not to be put on a medical trajectory that they may later regret."

The paradox is clear: puberty blockers were offered to allow young people to stop their maturation and decide freely about their sexual identities, but such drugs can also cause various other physical or psychological pathologies, and no one asked young people if they were ready to receive drugs with such consequences. Dr. Hilary Cass, one of the critics, wrote: “we… have no way of knowing whether, rather than buying time for decision-making, puberty blockers may disrupt the decision-making process. Brain maturation can be temporarily or permanently affected.”

We must take this critique one step further and question the very basic premise that arriving at sexual identity is a matter of mature free choice. There is nothing "abnormal" about sexual confusion: what we call "sexual maturation" is a long, complex, and mostly unconscious process. It is full of violent tensions and reversals – not a process of discovering what one really is at the level of one's psyche.

In numerous gender identity clinics across the West, clinicians feel compelled to adopt an “unconditional affirmative approach,” as one critic noted, with little appreciation for the underlying crises affecting children's mental health. The pressure is actually twofold. On the one hand, clinicians are intimidated by the trans lobby, which interprets skepticism about puberty blockers as a conservative attempt to make it difficult for trans individuals to update their sexual identities. This is compounded by a financial compulsion: more than half of Tavistock's income, for example, came from treating young people's sexual disorders. In short, what we have here is the worst combination of politically correct harassment and the brutal calculation of financial interests. The use of puberty blockers is yet another case of capitalism Woke.

Let it be known, both controversies resulted in at least a partial victory for “anti-woke” forces: Sturgeon resigned and the Tavistock clinic was closed. But the forces at play have an inertia that extends far beyond the perspectives of individual politicians and the dynamics of institutions in particular. If they play a role in this story, individuals and institutions are constantly seeking to accommodate constraints emanating from elsewhere rather than trying to impose them from the top down. It is therefore certain that similar scandals will continue to multiply.

As if the agitation of interest groups and the compulsions of capital were not enough, the wokeness he is also capable of drawing on reserves of religious strength. In our official ideological space, of course, the wokeness and religious fundamentalism appear as incompatible opposites – but are they really?

Almost a decade ago, ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie was invited by the Goldsmiths College from London to speak on the theme “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the era of the Islamic State”. Her speech, which focused on the theme of the Islamic oppression of women, was repeatedly and rudely interrupted by Muslim students. Has Namazie found allies in the Feminist Society at college? No. Feminists allied themselves with the Islamic Society of Goldsmiths.

This unexpected solidarity is ultimately based on the similarity in form of the two discourses: the discourse Woke it operates as a secularized religious dogma, with all the contradictions that this implies. John McWhorter, a black critic of wokeness racial, listed some of them in his recent book, Woke Racism: “You must strive forever to understand the experiences of black people / You will never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you understand, you are a racist”; “Show an interest in multiculturalism / Do not culturally appropriate”.

This is not an exaggerated caricature. Anyone who doubts the repressive potential of the movement would be well advised to read A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell, Vincent Lloyd's account for the website Compact about his encounter with the worst of culture Woke. Lloyd's credentials are impeccable: a black professor and director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University, he is the former director of the black studies of your university, leads workshops anti-racism and transformative justice and publishes books on anti-black racism and penal abolitionism, including the classic text Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination.

In the summer of 2022, Lloyd was invited by the Telluride association to conduct a six-week seminar on “Race and the Limits of Entitlement in America,” attended by 12 carefully selected 17-year-olds. Four weeks later, two of the students were voted out by their peers, and Lloyd himself was soon sidelined and expelled. In his last class: “Each student read part of a note about how the seminar perpetuated violence against blacks in its content and form, how black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn't feel safe because I hadn't immediately corrected views that failed to address racism as the cause of all the world's ills."

Lloyd compares these trends "to that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, with the need to equalize and elevate the militancy of comrades leading to a toxic culture rife with dogmatism and disillusionment". Its critics were based on a series of dogmas, among them: “There is no hierarchy of oppressions – except for the oppression against blacks, which is a class apart”; “Trust Black Women”; “Prisons are never the answer”; "All non-black people, and many black people, are guilty of racism."

But more crucial than the content was the conflict between the forms of the seminar and the workshop. Lloyd tried to practice the seminar, an exchange of views in which one intervention builds on another, one student notices what another misses, and the teacher steers the discussion toward the most important issues. Seminars often focus on a particular text, and participants patiently try to unravel its meaning. in the type of workshop anti-racism that Lloyd criticizes, in contrast, the dogma is clearly established, and the exchange focuses on how and where someone, knowingly or unknowingly, violated it.

As noted by Alenka Zupančič, the universe of politically correct workshops is the universe of Jasager of Bertold Brecht: everyone says yes again and again, and the main argument against those who are not accepted as sincere supporters is “prejudice”. Here's how “prejudice” works, according to Lloyd: “During our discussion of incarceration, an Asian-American student mentioned the demographic statistics about inmates: about 60% of them are white. Black students said they were disadvantaged. They had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacists. Outside of seminary, someone told me, black students had to spend a great deal of time correcting the prejudice that was inflicted on them because they heard prison statistics that weren't about black people. A few days later, the Asian-American student was kicked out of the program.”

Two things should surprise us here. First, this new cult combines a belief in fixed, objectified dogmas with complete trust in people's feelings (although only oppressed blacks have the right to refer to their feelings as a measure of the racists' guilt). A critical confrontation of arguments does not take place, implying that “open debate” is a racist and white supremacist notion. “Objective facts are a tool of white supremacists” – yes, then, as the Trumpists said, we must generate alternative facts…

Let me be clear: there is a kernel of truth to this. Those who are brutally oppressed lack the conditions for the deep reflection and well-thought-out debate needed to expose the falsehood of liberal-humanist ideology. But in this case, as in most other cases, those who appropriate the role of leader of the revolt precisely not they are the brutalized victims of racist oppression. You Woke are a minority of the privileged minority who can participate in a workshop of the highest level in an elite University.

Second, the mystery resides in the workings of the big Other (Telluride's administrative authority, in this case): the vision gradually imposed on everyone by the black elite. wow it was the view of a minority (initially, even among black participants). But how and why did these few not only succeed in terrorizing the majority, but even convincing the Telluride Association to take his side and refuse to defend Lloyd? Why didn't they at least take a more moderate position? Such as wokeness, even though a minority view, manages to neutralize the greater space of liberals and the left, instilling in it a deep fear of openly opposing the Woke?

Psychoanalysis has a clear answer to this paradox: the notion of Super ego. The superego is a cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and mocks my failed attempts to meet them. He is the agency in whose eyes I am all the more guilty the more I try to suppress my "sinful" urges. The old and cynical Stalinist motto about the accused who declared their innocence in staged trials – “the more innocent, the more they deserve to be shot” – is the superego in its purest form.

And does McWhorther, in the passage quoted, not exactly reproduce the structure of the superego paradox? “You must strive forever to understand the experiences of black people / You will never understand what it's like to be black, and if you think you understand, you're a racist”. In short, you have to, but you can't, because you shouldn't - the great sin is doing what you have to strive for... This complicated structure of an injunction that is carried out when we fail to achieve it explains the superego paradox. As Freud noted, the more we obey the superego's commands, the more guilty we feel. The paradox is also valid for Lacan's reading of the superego as an order of jouissance: jouissance is an impossible-real thing, we can never fully reach it, and this failure makes us feel guilty.

A series of situations that characterize today's society perfectly exemplify this type of superego pressure, such as, for example, the infinite self-examination of political correctness: was the look I directed at the flight attendant too intrusive and sexually offensive? Did I use any words with possible sexist innuendo when talking to her? And so on. The pleasure, even emotion, provided by this self-probing is evident.

And wouldn't the same even hold true for the pathological fear of some Western liberal leftists of being found guilty of Islamophobia? In this narrative, any criticism of Islam can only be an expression of Western Islamophobia. Salman Rushdie is denounced for needlessly provoking Muslims and therefore (partially, at least) inciting fatua who sentenced him to death. The result is predictable: the more Western liberal leftists appreciate their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites trying to hide their hatred of Islam. This constellation once again reproduces the paradox of the superego: the more you obey what the Other demands of you, the more guilty you are. It's like the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you...

This superego structure, therefore, explains how and why, in Telluride's case, both the majority and the institutional big Other were terrorized by the minority. Woke. All of them have been exposed to superego pressure that is far from an authentic demand for justice. the black elite Woke it is fully aware that it will not achieve its stated goal of lessening oppression against blacks - and it does not even want to. What they really want is what they are getting: a position of moral authority from which they can terrorize everyone else without effectively altering the social relations of domination.

The plight of those terrorized by the elite Woke is more complex, but remains clear: they submit to the demands Woke because most of them really é guilty of participating in social domination but submitting to the demands Woke offers them an easy way out – you proudly admit your guilt as long as it allows you to continue living the way you did. It's the old Protestant logic: "do what you want, just feel guilty about it".

A wokeness effectively represents its exact opposite. In The interpretation of dreams, Freud reports the dream of a father who falls asleep while watching over his son's coffin. In this dream, the dead son appears to him, uttering the terrible phrase "Father, can't you see that I am burning?" When the father awakens, he discovers that the cloth in his son's coffin had been set ablaze by a fallen candle.

So why did the father wake up? Was it because the smell of smoke became so strong that it was no longer possible to prolong sleep by including him in the improvised dream? Lacan proposes a much more interesting reading: “If the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream, after all, comes so close to the reality that causes it, we could not say that it corresponds to this reality without emerge from sleep? After all, there is such a thing as a sleepwalking activity. The question that arises, and that all of Freud's previous indications allow us to raise, is - What wakes the one who sleeps? Wouldn't it be, in the dream, another reality? – the reality that Freud describes, therefore – Dass das Kind na seinem Bette stheht, that the child is close to the bed, in am Arm fast, takes him by the arm and whispers reproachfully, und ihm vorwurfsvoll zuraunt: Vater, siehst du denn nichtFather, don't you see, dass ich verben, that I'm burning? Is there not more reality in this message than in the noise by which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the adjacent room? Wouldn't the lost reality that caused the son's death be expressed in these words?"

So it was not the intrusion of the signal from outside reality that woke the unfortunate father, but the unbearably traumatic character of what he found in the dream. Since “dreaming” means fantasizing in order to avoid a confrontation with Reality, the father literally woke up in order to continue dreaming. The scenario was as follows: when his sleep was disturbed by smoke, the father quickly constructed a dream that incorporated the nuisance element (smoke-fire) in order to prolong his sleep; however, what he was confronted with in the dream was a trauma (of his responsibility for his son's death) much stronger than reality, so he woke up to reality to avoid the Real...

And exactly the same is true of much of the movement Woke: the Woke [awakened] wake us up – to racism and sexism – precisely to allow us to keep dreaming. They show us realities so that we can continue to ignore the true roots and depths of our racial and sexual traumas.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on the website Compact.

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