Posted by: Emily | 16 December 2013

Don’t ignore my lived experience for the sake of your theory

Noted philosopher, cultural critic, and bestower of opinions about things he really doesn’t understand Slavoj Žižek wrote a piece in that bastion of people opining about things they don’t really understand, the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section, in which he waxes morally and intellectually superior about the fiasco surrounding the “sign language” “interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service who was spouting repetitive nonsense. Žižek’s point is that sign language interpreters in general serve but one purpose: to make hearing people feel better about themselves by appearing inclusive. And furthermore, what this guy did doesn’t really matter anyway, because the service was just a bunch of bullshit anyway, so having a bullshit interpreter was completely appropriate! In this understanding, the message the event sent was this: We tried to appear inclusive of Deaf people, so you should be thanking us for that, but what was actually said was complete bullshit anyway so you didn’t actually miss anything!

How wrong Žižek is. How incredibly, damagingly wrong he is. He so casually dismisses the whole idea of having sign language interpreters at all, because it’s not like those Deaf and hard of hearing and hearing-impaired and other folks who depend on signing for their communication would actually like to, you know, participate in anything. Interpreters are there simply to make hearing people feel good about themselves. That’s all. What a cynical and terribly damaging way to look at things this is. In my own life, I need an interpreter to be able to understand and participate fully in events where there is a speaker speaking to a group of people. I am okay in one-on-one conversations, and if there’s some people gathered around a table or whatever, I can usually hold my own, but with varying degrees of success. Lipreading in any modality other than straight looking at someone’s face that’s not too far away is an incredible feat. (The movie 2001 makes a plot point out of HAL’s ability to read lips in profile, which—even though it’s science fiction—is nearly impossible.) But if it’s any larger than that—say, a memorial service—I need a sign language interpreter. It’s that simple.

I would bet Žižek didn’t think to check with any Deaf people or anyone who depends on sign language in order to communicate before writing this piece of shit assumption about our lives. Because to do so would have required him to step out of his customary intellectual arrogance and actually take other people’s lived experiences seriously, which is something that Academia™ sees itself as above. Žižek is simply the latest person to do this at the expense of marginalized people he knows nothing about. And the jab at the end (“you didn’t really miss much anyway because this was all just bullshit theatre”) just adds to the insult. Academia doesn’t give two shits about marginalized people except insofar as they can use us to promote their pet theories.

This is a much larger problem than this one article by this one intellectual. This is a problem with the epistemology of marginalization as envisioned in the academy in general. That last sentence is a fancy was of saying that privileged people, by and large cis, white, able-bodied, middle-class men, believe they already know everything about everyone else’s lives, so they can go off and work on their big, grand theories, and us marginalized people should just shut up and be grateful that we’re even being mentioned in the conversation at all. One sees this when we white people talk about race rather than listening to what people of color are telling us. One sees this in “gender studies” departments, where the identities of transgender people are discussed and poked and prodded and sliced apart without the participation or input of a single one of us. This is a problem with how academia looks at the lives and the experiences of marginalized people in general. Žižek’s piece is simply the latest incarnation of this problem.

The whole point of sign language interpreters is to include and enable the participation of more voices (note the audist assumptions behind that last word) than would otherwise be able to be included. I understand that interpreters are expensive and sometimes difficult to procure, but if your event doesn’t have an interpreter, I will not be able to participate as fully as I otherwise might be able to. And I’m pretty lucky: I will probably be able to participate somewhat. There are many of us out there who can’t. That’s what interpreters are there for, Slavoj. They—and we—are not there so that you can make your theoretical points while completely disregarding us and our actual lived experiences. They—and we—are not props for you to make rhetorical arguments out of while simultaneously dismissing the whole institution as the “pretense of meaning”.

Next time, ask some actual, factual Deaf people about our own goddamn lives. Then shut up and let us speak—or sign.


  1. […] Žižek thinks sign language interpreters’ only purpose is to make hearing people feel better about […]

  2. Wow, I had only heard of this guy as some pretentious theory guy but this makes him sound like a run of the mill asshole. If some banal white ‘media bad boy’ said something like this, it’d be par for the course and roundly denounced, and it’d be seen as the rantings of an arrogant bully who can’t think of disabled people as anything but props for sounding clever. I guess this Zisek guy really is no different, he just looks like an aging disheveled hipster instead.

    I live in the US, where there has been talk of “English only” and a friend of mine pointed out that such legislation could jeopardize access to interpreters as ASL is one of the most common second languages.

    I have vision problems, epilepsy, but I’m also a person with a mental illness, and I get sick of being a prop for someone’s pretentious whining. Zisek needs to learn some basic manners.

    • Yes! I totally agree on what you say about him being a run-of-the-mill asshole. My girlfriend writes theory and is doing a PhD in cultural studies and for people in her field zizek is pretty much considered a celebrity whose work is irrelevant to most contemporary conversations.

      He just speaks in an unstructured way that has people think he is complex. Which he truly is not.

      The stuff he said defending Julian assange and mocking feminist work on sexual consent is especially disgusting too.

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