On practice and passive aggressivity

passive-aggressive01.JPGHere I will look at the issue of political practice. To do so I will draw from Slavoj Žižek’s publication of collected essays “The Universal Exception” (2006), most specifically, although by no means only, contained in “The prospects of radical politics today” (pp. 237-258) “A leftist plea for ‘Eurocentrism'” (pp.183-208) and “A plea for ‘passive aggressivity'”(pp.209-226). Unless stated otherwise, the page references into brackets will refer to this book. We here in the Subaltern Studies collective should all be aware by now of Žižek’s frequent and swift dismissal of “the pseudo-radical academic leftist chic“. With this in the back of our mind, how do we respond to the question that “people intervene all the time (and) academics participate in meaningless ‘debates’ etc” (212)?

According to Žižek, what is usually praised in (postmodern) cultural critique as ‘identity politics’ fits perfectly well the bill of the current depoliticised notion of society: a post-ideological notion of society whereby every particular group is accounted for and has its specific status acknowledged through affirmative action or other measures destined to guarantee social justice (for which, Žižek also points out, “an intricate police apparatus is required” (203). In this way, ‘alternative’ and ‘participatory’ political engagement constitutes another variation of “politics without politics” (coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, sweeteners without sugar or milk without fat…). As celebratory resistances reduce to the pursuit of particular -ethnic, sexual… – lifestyles, the prospect of a truly radical politics is deprived of its malignant supplement. In other words, the sting of real antagonism is substituted with a politics of identity pluralisation not involving a logic of struggle but a logic of ‘resentment’: the logic of acknowledged victimhood, “of proclaiming oneself a victim and expecting the dominant social Other to pay for the damage” (203).

Effectively, therefore, postmodern identity politics is the end of politics proper. It is also the product and outcome of “globalisation without universalism” (204): a product, in other words, where the uncontested realm of the contemporary global market and the new world order’s smooth transnational circulation and functioning of Capital can easily do without the properly political domain of universalising one’s particular fate as representative of global injustice.

According to Žižek, depoliticisation arises thus from the permissive coexistence of a multitude of ways of life within the global capitalist framework; and it is against such an end-of-ideology non-politics that he insists on the potential of democratic politicisation as the true progressive European legacy (206). Europe’s truly radical political legacy and traditions could still allow overcoming, Žižek argues, the post-political procedural framework of pluralist negotiation and consensual regulation remaining at the base of such liberal-multiculturalist notions as ‘understanding’ and ‘respecting’ the other. Instead, this European legacy could

…Open the way for a return of the political proper, that is, the reassertion of the dimension of antagonism that, far from denying universality, is consubstantial with it (198).

In short, what is really needed is to invent a new mode of re-politicisation that questions the undisputed reign of global Capital; to “invent forms of political practice that contain a dimension of universality beyond Capital” (27). Although, to say it again, these forms of political practice do not imply that one should insist too much on ‘transformative’ forms of ‘radical’, ‘participatory’ and ‘alternative’ democracy as we understand them today; on forms of ‘engaged’ political practice, that is to say, in which -words are not minced here – “we are active in order to make sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change” (212).

On the contrary, today’s post-political constellation must be apprehended as a closed and self-contained system with no possibilities of substantial change from within. Actual change, if anything, can only stem not from proposing radical alternatives in an attempt at “keeping the dream alive” but from “the acceptance of the desperate closure of the present global situation” (Irak: The Borrowed Kettle, 2004, p.114). As a consequence, in contrast to such a standard (‘agonic’) mode of ‘committed’ participation in socio-ideological life, the proper political gesture is, precisely, not to fall into the urge to act, to avoid, in other words, the compulsion to do something. In the times where the function of all imaginable forms of active and localised “resistance” and “subversion” is “to make the system run more smoothly” and “to mask the Nothingness of what goes on”…

…the first truly critical, [‘aggressive’, violent] step is to withdraw into passivity, to refuse to participate – this is the necessary first step that, as it were, clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of today’s constellation (212).

This provocative call “to do nothing,” a plea in favour of what Žižek calls “passive aggressivity” (or active nihilism) is not merely a call against even the most modest of ‘local’ practical action. In this respect, since I now live in Liverpool, it is perhaps worth recalling the very highly publicised case over a decade ago, when four middle-aged devout Catholic pacifist women broke into an army compound near this city and succeeded in smashing a warplane with the bare but violent force of their hammer blows. As polemical as it turned out to be, both the jury and hence the presiding judge that took up the court case considered this instance of “direct action” against the arms trade with Indonesia at the time to be illegal but legitimate, and set the Ploughshare activists free on conscientious grounds. As John M. Miller put it in “Seeds of Hope”:

In a surprise verdict, four British women were acquitted in late July [1996] of plotting to damage a Hawk jet fighter bound for Indonesia. Although all four admitted involvement in last January’s Seed of Hope Ploughshares action, a Liverpool jury found them not guilty of causing $2.25 million in damage to the plane.

And yet, from this ‘benevolence’ and ‘understanding’ of the legal system towards what was clearly an illegal act of defiance against the established order, two questions should be asked… at least. One: is it not perhaps better to abide by the law for the wrong reasons than breaking the law for the right reasons? and two: should not any ‘radical’ social and cultural critic be also aware that by means of our both celebratory and activist procedures destined to ‘subvert’, ‘challenge’ and ‘disrupt’ the existing order, actually we serve as the very far from malignant supplement to this existing order?

Within such a context, Žižek’s call for passive aggressivity encompasses a critique against the compulsion to act on two grounds: not only against the fatalistic urge of ‘doing’ something for the sake of doing it (‘something must be done against injustice’); but also against the urge of ‘doing’ something even when theorised within a framework which involves ‘critical’ thinking’. To illustrate this point with another example, Margaret Ledwith (2005) writes that “action without reflection is uncritical”, and then continues:

the dominant hegemony shapes the way we think and, therefore, we act in the world […] we should [thus] be wary as to the ways in which we can become distracted from our commitment to social justice by allowing the radical agenda to be diluted by more reactionary theories that lead to ameliorative rather than transformative approaches to practice. (28-29)

Ledwith warns us against action without reflection within the context of current British debates on community participation, engagement and empowerment. Against Ledwith’s underlying thesis, however, the truth of community engagement is, on the contrary, that in order to be operative, the ruling ideology has to incorporate a series of features in which the exploited / dominated majority will be able to recognise its authentic longings. That is to say: the dominant hegemony of global Capital is not only not against, but is also very much eager to indulge in, and share our own ‘radical’ theoretical concerns, to the extent that the more fragmented, dispersed and hybrid/hyphenated our identities, the more ‘diversified’ the offerings to the ‘specialised’ demands of ‘the community’ can be – form United Colors of Benetton to exotic black gay tourism in Patagonia, say, or women only Latino dancing in Bali etc.

To put it in other more memorable – but inverted- words: as the ruling ideas are not necessarily (The Ticklish Subject, 184) or are precisely not directly the ideas of those who rule (153), Žižek’s is also a call to step back altogether from what Ledwith phrases as “transformative approaches to practice”: to withdraw from activity (or pseudo-activity)… to do nothing and thus to think instead. Within today’s post-political constellation, Žižek’s is a call to think tout court (although not necessarily to think wishfully). In fact, the truly difficult thing to do today is to withdraw from activity because…

… those in power often prefer ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – they would prefer to engage us in a ‘dialogue’, just to make sure that our ominous passivity is broken (212).

Hence, Žižek’s total lack of what illustrious middle of the road Italian liberal-socialist Norberto Bobbio (2001) would name as “moderation of judgment” or “philological scruple” when advancing an outrageous (yet commonsensical) proposal from the self-consciously accepted perspective and reality of the defeated Left:

There is no space for compromise here, no “dialogue”, no search for allies in a difficult time – today in an epoch of the temporary retreat [of the Left] Lenin’s strategic insight is crucial: “When an army is in retreat, a hundred times more discipline is required than when an army is advancing. (The Parallax View, 5-6).


Bobbio, N., Old Age and Other Essays, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001

Ledwith, M. Community Development, A Critical Approach, Polity press, 2005. First published Venture Press, 1997.

Miller, J. M. “Seeds of Hope” News Notes of the “Non-Violent Activist” http://www.warresisters.org/nva996-3.htm

Žižek, S., The Universal Exception, London, New York: Continuum, 2006

Žižek, S The Parallax View, The MIT Press, USA, England, (2006) pp. 5-6.

Žižek, S Irak: The Borrowed Kettle, London, New York: Verso, (2004) p.114.

2 thoughts on “On practice and passive aggressivity

  1. Could Gandhi be called a passive aggressive? On one hand he recommended passivity as a form of revolt. Immortalised in Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi denouncing the unjust discriminatory laws in a speech: “This evil has to be fought with every fibre of our being…. They may beat us! They may break our bones! They may kill us! In the end what do they have? Our dead bodies! But not our obedience!” On the other, he worked actively with the British and the nationalists Indian national Congress, Muslim League. His goal was a structural transformation in terms of institutions, organisations at the top rather than a grass roots reflective change.

  2. The dilemma you point out is one of difficult resolution since, as you rightly imply, what the final outcome of, in this case, a national and anti-imperialist liberation struggle brings about via victory and independence is also that the very (ideological super)structures against which .the struggle was directed remain not only intact but if anything further reinforced and consolidated. My own take on Zizek’s idea of passive aggressivity is more ambivalent (and pessimistic) than Ghandi’s, which strictly speaking were calls for civil disobedience (that is to say: another form of active struggle). Expect a longer answer to this issue soon.

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