Can One Be Essentialist About Essentialism: The Žižek-Harman Debate — Umar Nizarudeen

Slavoj Žižek, intellectual gadfly, agent provocateur and enfant terrible of contemporary philosophy, defines anti-semitism as an essentialism. According to Žižek, anti-semitism consists not in accusing the Jewish community or its individuals of various misdeeds (including sexual indiscretions), but in positing those various misdeeds as an index of their Jewishness. Thus anti-semitism for Žižek comprises in the claim that “since so and so was a Jew, he/she committed such acts”. The same notion could be applied to the contemporary discourse of Islamophobia.

The debate between the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the neo-materialist Graham Harman (organized at the Munich Lost-Weekend Cafe, on December 1, 2018; organized and moderated by Dominik Finkelde from the Munich School of Philosophy) broaches upon the question of identity and essentialism within the context of “Orientalism” as espoused by Edward Said and which finds its contemporary articulation in the discourse surrounding Islamophobia. Harman sets out to attack Žižek’s earlier position on identity. Harman contradicts Žižek’s definition of anti-semitism by adding a cognitive knowledge claim to it. Anti-semitism for Harman lies not in positing an essential Jewishness, but in the cognitive claim to know and to have cognitive access to that “essential Jewishness”. Here Harman also contradicts Edward Said, whom Harman qualifies as having the status of a sort of unquestionable deity in the elite Cairo academia Harman himself was once part of. But Orientalism also foregrounds essentialism as its bugbear. Orientalist hegemony lies in creating an essentialist “Orient” matching its fantasies. Harman refutes such an essentialism by adding a knowledge claim to the debate, oblivious to the fact that Edward Said himself was well aware of the politics of “power/knowledge” having frame his entire argument in a Foucauldian vein. But Žižek chooses not to defend Edward Said. Rather, he gives an ingenious redefinition to “essentialism” itself. This novel notion of essentialism can be crucial to the “Islamophobia” debate.

For Žižek, one cannot be essentialist about “essentialism” itself. He illustrates this with the aid of a story surrounding an old Slovenian tradition which narrates that Scotland (infamous, according to Žižek, for a miserly stereotype of its inhabitants) was populated by spendthrifts exiled from Slovenia for that trait. Thus an essentialism (of miserliness) is constructed around an exception (those exiled to Scotland). The Slovene legend relates not an absolutely essentialist miserliness for themselves, but rather it gives evidence to a tear in the fabric of essentialism, in terms of those exiled to Scotland, a fact which only serves to amplify their own Slovene miserliness (Žižek is also riffing on Harman’s own Scottish identity).

Umar Nizarudeen teaches at the Government College Madapally, University of Calicut in Kerala. He was a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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