Sunday, March 28, 2010

Defending Cuba from Slavoj Zizek

Zizek embarrassments

Louis Proyect

I am not sure that Slavoj Zizek has the same cachet with Marxist graduate students he had about 10 years ago, but in case there are some readers of the unrepentant Marxist who fall into that category, let me draw your attention to two items—one about Cuba and the other about Avatar—that might give you pause for thought. Although I no longer have the kind of visceral dislike for his ideas and personality I once did, every once in a while he can really get my dander up.

A couple of weeks ago Derrick O’Keefe sent me a link to a Youtube clip of Zizek speaking on “The Future of Europe” at a conference in Slovenia. Someone must have asked him about Cuba during the Q&A since his potshots seem to have little to do with the topic at hand unless he was trying to warn the audience about the dangers of “stagnation” and “gulags” that might attend a Cuban-style revolution in Europe.

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”. No, I am not making this up. Just watch the Youtube clip and see for yourself. As a professional psychoanalyst, as Zizek described himself, the only explanation for this kind of “renunciation” was a kind of self-destructive mental illness. For Zizek, the effects of an American embargo and the need to spend a disproportionate amount of the national treasury on weaponry becomes a form of anorexia, as if Fidel Castro viewed consumer goods and creature comfort as “bourgeois”.

Zizek also urges those in his audience to see the “gulags” in Cuba. I am not sure whether the psychoanalyst, film critic and fan of Lenin has read much about Cuba, but the island has been invaded by an expeditionary force organized by the USA and suffered billions of dollars of war damages during Operation Mongoose. It has also had to put up with a domestic opposition financed by the USA ever since the revolutionaries took power. Any other country that had to face such mortal threats would have been far more repressive than Cuba, including the USA which put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during WWII simply for being Japanese.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on “Zizek and Cuba” in google/books and came up with a reference that helped put his Youtube utterances into perspective. In “Welcome to the desert of the Real”, a group of essays meditating on 9/11, Zizek describes a “paradox” in which the main result of the revolution is “to bring social dynamics to a standstill”. If you’re a bit puzzled about what exactly this standstill involves, he would tell you that it is the “1950s American cars” you see everywhere. Someone with the barest curiosity about Cuba might know that the island places much more emphasis on other forms of “social dynamics” than automobiles, including a biotechnology industry second to none:

Cuba’s biotechnological capacity places it in group four of the World Health Organization’s five categories. To reach group five, which is formed only by the eight top industrial economies, Cuba must produce at least 20% of the 260 basic materials. It regularly produces 18% of these and certainly has the scientific ability to produce the others with biotech methods.

Cuba also has 160 distinct research and development units and over 10,000 researchers through out the country

According to Cuba’s own figures, as well as those provided by scientists and engineers, both from Cuba and other countries, the Cuban government has spent approximately $3,500 million dollars in this industry since 1986. The return of such investment has been approximately the sales of $200 million dollars in vaccines and medicines. The production for domestic use has been almost nothing, since the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines. [LP: An assertion that unlike those made previously is not backed by data. The fact is that Cuba's infant mortality rate and average life expectancy match those of Canada. If it lacked "the most basic medicines", this could not be possible. In any case, the hostility toward Cuba expressed by this assertion, if anything, would add weight to the previous comments about biotechnology.]

Unlike the Lacanian, Cuba seems to have its priorities straight.

Turning now to his review of Avatar, it must be said that his leftist attack on the movie that appeared in the New Statesman is familiar by now, coming rather late in the game, and with the by-now obligatory mention of Dances with Wolves:

The utopia imagined in Avatar follows the Hollywood formula for producing a couple – the long tradition of a resigned white hero who has to go among the savages to find a proper sexual partner (just recall Dances With Wolves)…

Avatar’s fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the “military-industrial complex” of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.

Oddly enough, this analysis was embraced by David Brooks of the NY Times, an op-ed columnist with a long history in the neoconservative movement:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Zizek scolds Cameron for not having made a movie that the indigenous peoples of Orissa could relate to. These are the Indian poor who are being displaced by mining companies that Sanhati activist Siddhartha Mitra reported on at last week’s Left Forum. Zizek writes:

So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.

Despite Zizek’s animosity, there is evidence that the super-exploited do connect to the movie.

Ironically, the Chinese workers and peasants who are being robbed of the social gains of the Maoist revolution that these very Naxalites identify with do feel a connection as the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The plot of “Avatar,” on the other hand, could be seen to parallel all sorts of contemporary Chinese problems. The tale of a people threatened with eviction by outsiders in search of minerals could, for example, be thought to echo the plight of the Tibetans.

But the similarity that resonates with ordinary Chinese is between the invaders’ rapacious attack on the Na’vis in “Avatar” and greedy property developers’ routine evictions of householders and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

Such evictions are the most common cause of violent disturbances in China, according to official statistics.

“Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,” wrote one blogger.

Some protesters have already used the movie to draw attention to their plight. One blog carried a photo of a building under construction in the southern province of Guangdong draped with banners proclaiming, “We are innocent Na’vis on the planet Pandora” and “The Avatar reality show is on.”

Meanwhile Evo Morales, a leader of indigenous peoples in Bolivia who became president on a leftwing program, relates to Cameron’s “racist” movie as well:

“LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s first indigenous president is praising “Avatar” for what he calls its message of saving the environment from exploitation.

A self-proclaimed socialist, Evo Morales says he identifies with the film’s “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Finally, the Palestinians have found the movie’s message and imagery relevant enough to appropriate for a novel demonstration:

1 comment:

  1. People really overreact to Zizek. Curious! Check out Cuba's treatment of Gay's.
    But even Socialist Bolivia has same patriarchal problems with sexuality.

    Cuba isn't perfect. Despite all the interference they've had to deal with, they've done really well.

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