This article is republished from an eBook series that has been made freely available.
By Jon Hochschartner
The public statements of Marxist writer Slavoj Zizek, which are sometimes difficult to interpret given his predilection for irony and contrarianism, suggest he supports a lukewarm reformism in regards to the treatment of animals, which, pathetically, makes his species politics more progressive than many socialists. It should be mentioned that though the Slovenian cultural critic may be popular on the left, he’s not necessarily respected there. Louis Proyect, for instance, has dismissed him as the intellectual equivalent of a “shock jock,” while Noam Chomsky has suggested Zizek’s work is “theoretical posturing which has no content.”
To begin, there’s a widely shared clip on YouTube, which appears to be an excerpt from a 2005 documentary on Zizek, in which Zizek said, speaking of vegetarians, “Degenerates, degenerates. You will turn into monkeys.” The statement is so absurdly over the top, one must assume it was intended as humor. Zizek seemed to be more serious in a 2010 lecture at the Birkbeck Institute, in which he appeared to empathize to a limited degree with animal victims of human violence, while explicitly distancing himself from the most prominent contemporary thinker associated with animal defense.
“My next example is animal rights,” Zizek started. “I mean I am not becoming Peter Singer, don’t be afraid of that.” Whatever criticisms animal liberationists have of Singer, we should be aware Zizek almost certainly used the Australian philosopher as a stand-in for all opposed to anthropocentrism. While Zizek appears to have said some quite complimentary things about Singer in the past, his prefatory statement here should be interpreted as an attempt at speciest bonding, in which Zizek reassured the audience of his continued support for human supremacy, before launching into a tepid criticism of animal exploitation. “We know what we are doing to animals,” Zizek continued. “You know how chicken are grown. You know how pigs are grown. It’s a nightmare, but how do we survive? We know it, but we act as if we do not know.”
Before describing the horrific results of vivisection, Zizek warns the audience he is overly emotional about the topic, as if his reaction was unjustified in the context of animal treatment. “And here I’m a little bit sentimental,” Zizek said. “I remember years ago I saw a photo of a cat, immediately after this cat was submitted to some rather unpleasant experiment.” His description of the experiment as ‘rather unpleasant’ is absurd given the brutal description that follows. One might similarly say, after seeing a beaten human face resulting from a batched mugging, that the victim had a ‘rather unpleasant’ walk in the park.
“This experiment was under the pretext of testing how a living organism — how much pressure and hits can it endure,” Zizek said. “It’s not immediately clear to me how this would help people.” One can infer here Zizek believed, with obvious anthropocentrism, that if the experiment somehow assisted humans it would be justified. “The cat was put in a centrifuge and it turned like crazy,” Zizek said, before making a genuinely perceptive observation into non-human perspective. “What you then got at the end was a cat with literally broken limbs, and most shocking to me most of the hair was gone. But it was still alive and just looking into the camera. And here I would like to ask the Hegelian question. What did the cat see in us? What kind of a monster?”
The year prior, in his book “Violence: Six Sideways Reflections,” Zizek made a similar point regarding our willful ignorance of animal exploitation. “What about animals slaughtered for our consumption?” He said. “Who among us would be able to continue eating pork chops after visiting a factory farm in which pigs are half-blind and cannot even properly walk, but are just fattened to be killed?” While obviously preferable to endorsing the heightened suffering in industrial agriculture, Zizek’s condemnation specifically of factory farms disappointingly suggests he might approve of less modern and potentially more ‘gentle’ methods of killing non-humans. Were we to move such reformism onto the terrain of the worker’s movement, he would no doubt recognize and oppose it.
Zizek is so prolific it would be near impossible to review all of his writing and lectures that touch on species politics. Frankly he is held in low-enough regard by many on the left that it would not be worth the time. But I believe the examples I’ve provided here are representative. He’s a reformist on the animal question, which to the left’s discredit, puts him ahead of many socialists.