Hegel, in a 19th century portrait. Image: WikiCommons
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Slavoj Žižek: A modest rejoinder

“Although I am far from a well-meaning liberal, I simply cannot recognise myself in the lunatic-destructive figure described by Cohen.”

Josh Cohen’s review of my last two books misrepresents my position so thoroughly that I think a short clarification is required. I prefer to disregard his resumé of my reading of Hegel which begins with a total nonsense: “Where, in the standard reading of Hegel, one element comes into conflict with another external to it, in Žižek’s reading, conflict is internal or ‘immanent’ to the first element.” It is precisely in the standard reading of Hegel that conflict is internal to the first element, while in my reading, the “first element” is a retroactive illusion, it “becomes first” in the course of the dialectical process. There is no place here to dwell on the central topic of my reading of Hegel which is absent from Cohen’s resumé (how to move beyond transcendental approach without falling back into pre-critical realism), or on how Cohen totally misses the point of my deployment of the antagonism internal to the void itself. More interesting for most of the readers is Cohen’s total misrepresentation of my political stance. He attributes to me a grim vision in which today’s late capitalism appears as the worst of all possible worlds, worse than Nazism or Stalinism:

The grim prospect of ’non-eventful survival in a hedonist-utilitarian universe’ licenses Žižek to prefer even the most catastrophic political experiment to our current set-up. As he writes: ‘Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.’”

In view of later developments, Cohen would undoubtedly attribute to me the claim: “Better the worst of Isis than the best of liberal democracy…” Yes, I did write the statement he quotes a couple of times, but I always strongly qualified it, like here: “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy. Of course, the moment one compares the positive content of the two, the Welfare State capitalist democracy is incomparably better.” So the least one can say is that, since I admit that a liberal-capitalist state is “incomparably better” to live in than Stalinism, I must mean something quite different from the simple claim that Stalinism is better than a liberal welfare state. (Incidentally, it should be obvious that I allude here to the well-known Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy as the worst of all political systems, with the proviso that compared to it, all others are worse…) Another example: yes, I wrote: “The change will be most radical if we do nothing.” But here is the context:

We are now approaching a certain zero-point – ecologically, economically, socially… -, things will change, the change will be most radical if we do nothing, but there is no eschatological turn ahead pointing towards the act of global Salvation.”

What is clear from this passage is that if we do nothing, we will slowly slide towards the ecological-economic-social catastrophe – it’s a call to us to do something. Do what? Here my stance is simply open: there are situations where it is better to do nothing (since our engagement just strengthens the system) – sometimes I refer to this as the Bartleby-politics; there are situations where we have to engage in a strong global act (like the struggle to defeat Fascism); and there are situations where one should engage in modest local struggles. The last point is especially important since it belies Cohen’s claim that, in Trouble in Paradise, “Žižek insists that liberal capitalism is the worst of all possible worlds because it closes up all the gaps through which its inconsistencies could be made visible.” Really? Here is a passage from Trouble in Paradise:

The alternative of pragmatic dealing with particular problems and waiting for a radical transformation is a false one, it ignores the fact that global capitalism is necessarily inconsistent: market freedom goes hand in hand with the US support of its own farmers, preaching democracy goes hand in hand with supporting Saudi Arabia. This inconsistency, this need to break one’s own rules, opens up a space for political interventions: since inconsistency is necessary, since the global capitalist system has to violate its own rules (free market competition, democracy), to insist on consistency, i.e., on the principles of the system itself, at a strategically selected points at which the system cannot afford to follow its principles, leads to changing the entire system. In other words, the art of politics resides in insisting on a particular demand which, while thoroughly ‘realist’, disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology and implies a much more radical change, i.e., which, while definitely feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible. Obama’s project of universal healthcare was such a case: although it was a modest realist proposal, it obviously disturbed the core of American ideology. In today’s Turkey, a simple demand for actual multicultural tolerance (which goes by itself in most of Western Europe) has an explosive potential. In Greece, the simple call for a more efficient and non-corrupted state apparatus, if meant seriously, implies a total overhaul of the state. This is why there is no analytic value in blaming directly neoliberalism for our particular woes: today’s world order is a concrete totality within which specific situations ask for specific acts. A measure (say, a defense of human rights) which is in general a liberal platitude, can lead to explosive developments in a specific context.”

This is the reason why I now fully support the struggle of the Syriza government in Greece. If one looks closely at their proposals, one cannot help noticing that what they advocate are measures which, 40 years ago, were part of the standard moderate Social-Democratic agenda – it is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a radical Left to advocate these same measures.

There is much more to say, but I hope these brief remarks make it clear why, although I am far from a well-meaning liberal, I simply cannot recognise myself in the lunatic-destructive figure described by Cohen.  

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.