By Jamil Khader
In his blog, “Junction 48, Sexual is Political” (Huffington Post April 26, 2016), the eminent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek roots, and rightly so, for Udi Aloni’s film, Junction 48, on “ideologico-political” grounds. Surprisingly, in his commentary on the merits of the film’s subject and form, Žižek is not Žižekian enough. He walks a fine line between elucidating the film’s intersectional treatment of the situation of the colonized Palestinian community inside Israel proper and his critique of the politically correct Western leftists and their multicultural ideology. Nonetheless, he does not seem to bring the analysis back to his trademark Marxist, or “communist” as he states, method in relation to the fundamental antagonism (class struggle) within the global capitalist system.
Aloni’s courageous film is timely released to coincide with the commemorations of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. However, the film narrates the struggles of its protagonist, the Palestinian rapper and hip-hop DAM band member Tamer Nafar, at the intersection of the Israeli apartheid regime, its Zionist colonial-settler project, and its occupation policies, one the one hand, and on the other, Arab patriarchal traditions especially, the recent exponential growth in “honor killing” crimes, or more accurately (intra-family) femicide, in Palestine.
Despite the film’s intersectional analysis, anti-Zionist viewers at Columbia University, as Žižek states, objected to the representation of the problem of femicide in the film as a cultural problem. For them, the film blames the Palestinians and their cultural traditions for these “barbaric acts,” for which the structural violence of the state, “the only democracy in the Middle East,” is ultimately responsible. Indeed, the film seems to pre-empt this critique by having the protagonist defend his position, stating that he “[sings] in Arabic to protect the women in my own hood.”
It is important to note that this is not the first time this debate about DAM’s politics over femicide has erupted. In 2013 DAM released a music video, “If I Could Go Back in Time,” about these heinous crimes which was the subject of an intense debate on the blogosphere. The music video was thus criticized back then for treating femicide as a social not a political problem. Others cogently demonstrated that the oppressive patriarchal structures in Palestine continued to operate with full force under the aegis of the Israeli apartheid policies and in cahoots with them. No one in this debate, though, came to the defense of oppressive Arab patriarchal traditions, but concerns were raised about the UN funding of their project
It is not clear whether or not Žižek is aware of this context, but his enthusiastic ideologico-political endorsement of the film has more to do with his critique of the politically correct Western leftists and their skewed multicultural politics. There are two main points Žižek drives home against Western leftists through Nafar and Junction 48: First, the terms of the struggle in which oppressed communities are invested must be set by these communities themselves. Echoing Malcom X, Žižek suggests, Nafar seems to be saying that “Palestinians do not need the patronizing help of Western liberals; even less do they need the silence about “honor killing” as part of the Western leftist’s “respect” for Palestinian ways of life.”
Second, Žižek opposes the false multiculturalist position, because it gives these communities free license to practice oppressive traditions in the name of cultural tolerance. As Žižek writes, “the multiculturalist anti-colonialist defense of the multiplicity of the ‘ways of life’” ends up “[covering] up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life, justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expression of a particular cultures that we have no right to judge by foreign “Western values.”
— Danny Glover (@mrdannyglover) May 5, 2016
Underlying Žižek’s critique of multiculturalist ideology is its “culturalization of politics”—that it turns every political problem into a cultural one and defines it in terms of tolerance for different cultural traditions or ways of life. Although, as Žižek argues, Junction 48 insists that the “sexual is political,” his analysis of the film is atypical of his signature Marxist method, for he does not tie these secondary contradictions in the Palestinian condition namely, gender and colonialism, back to the fundamental antagonism (class struggle) within the global capitalist system. The intersectional model proposed by the film simply does not explain oppression at the level of the formal constitution of the structural source of the problem itself namely, global capitalism.
Ironically, in my intervention on DAM’s music video, I drew precisely on Žižek’s theories to argue that global capitalism ultimately generates the contradictions and conditions within which the crimes of femicide are committed. In their rejoinder to the original critique, DAM members correctly insisted that Israeli colonial policies may not explain violence against women in Arab countries or the world, but they did not suggest what might. Global capitalism remained invisible. Hence, Žižek’s Marxist theories made it possible to locate the violent histories of femicide within the material realities of economic globalization whether in Palestine, Mexico, or Israel itself. Moreover, his theories allowed for revealing the extent to which global capitalism uses colonialism and patriarchy to reproduce, and at the same time conceal, the hegemony of the global economic order.
Framing Junction 48 within the global capitalist economy can help shed a different light on several issues Žižek raises in his commentary. First, Assaf’s and Nafar’s seemingly divergent positions on tradition seem to be more symmetrical than one expects. Their different versions of tradition are nothing more than symptoms or byproducts of the contradictions of the global capitalist system as they are played out at the local level. Second, Žižek’s reference to Malcolm X in relation to Nafar’s politics betrays an asymmetrical relationship between them. Žižek usually couples Malcolm X’s story with the white woman about what whites can do in the black struggle with Malcolm X’s reinvention of black identity through what he refers to as “subjective destitution,” as an opportunity to reimagine a new radical universal subjectivity (symbolized by his iconic X).
— Valletta Film Fest (@VallettaFF) May 6, 2016
However, there is a double absence at the core of this analysis: With regard to Western leftists’ solidarity with the oppressed, Žižek’s reading remains silent about the stance of Israeli leftists about their approach and motivation for “helping” Palestinians, while insisting on reaping the privileges of Jewish identity and Zionist entitlement. It is not clear, that is, whether Žižek’s critique of the false multiculturalism of Western liberal discourses also applies to Israeli leftist circles themselves. Needless to mention, with regard to Nafar’s politics, Malcolm x’s subjective destitution is not even an issue in Junction 48.
Finally, Žižek’s generous reading of Junction 48, as I argued recently in a different context, leaves out the ways in which particular forms of struggle, which are structured by secondary contradictions be they gender, race, colonialism, and sexuality, can be articulated in relation to the fundamental antagonism. Indeed, only by reformulating these contradictions in terms of the “problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice” which cut through all communities within the dominant global capitalist system, as he says elsewhere, that a radical solidarity politics can be formed. It is this “trans-cultural link,” as he calls it, that we must insist on recovering.
– Dr. Jamil Khader is Dean of Research and Professor of English at Bethlehem University, Palestine. He is the author of Cartographies of Transnationalism in Postcolonial Feminisms: Geography, Culture, Identity, Politics (Lexington Books 2012) and is the coeditor, with Molly Rothenberg, of a collection of essays on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, entitled, Žižek Now: Current Perspectives in Žižek Studies (Polity 2013). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.