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  • The Politics of Undeserved Happiness
  • Zahi Zalloua (bio)

In this essay, I want to critically engage with privilege theory and the now widespread liberal activist slogan "check your privilege" so prevalent on U.S. college campuses. Feminists were arguably the first to criticize unearned privilege, and in particular male privilege, as well as resistance on the part of the privileged to recognizing that privilege as exclusionary. American feminist Peggy McIntosh looks for example at the ways some men react negatively to the critique of male privilege, illustrating their reluctance to give up their power (McIntosh 2001, 95-105). Even when men acknowledge the historical discrimination of women, according to McIntosh, they often fail to see privilege as divisive: they fail to see, that is, how the notion of privilege is governed by a logic of exclusion. In discovering her own white privilege, McIntosh comments, "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (94-95). To correct such shortcomings, privilege theory teaches that there is no privilege without the unprivileged. What comes out of the analysis of McIntosh and others, then, is the imperative to self-analyze, to check one's privilege. But what does it mean to check privilege? What is its critical force? Is it adequate to the task at hand? Simply stated, what is privilege theory questioning and what is it leaving intact?

I counter here what could be described as privilege theory's liberal critique of unearned privilege on two fronts.1 On the first front, I draw on Herbert Marcuse's claim for "the need for 'undeserved' happiness" from his 1967 essay, "The End of Utopia." The "happiness" in "'undeserved' happiness" here should not be conflated with complacent satisfaction, with the attainment of a happy state—a view of happiness that psychoanalysis consistently questions—but should be understood instead as referring to modes of enjoyment, to unruly acts of libidinal gratification and [End Page 371] self-cultivation incongruous with the capitalist maxim, happiness as the deserved fruits of social productivity. Moreover, Marcuse's formulation throws a wrench in the logic of reward and punishment that often informs the contemporary discourse of privilege, a logic that unwittingly transforms the critique of structural inequalities into a matter of individual conscience: you should be verbally punished for assuming your unearned privilege (visible in the act of calling out someone's privilege in the accusatory charge, "your privilege is showing"), and rewarded for confessing your given privilege (whether or not that confession leads to a deeper engagement with the structural problems at work). On the second front, I scrutinize further privilege theory's under-theorized account of subjectivity. In this effort, I turn to Slavoj Žižek's Lacanian musings on the postmodern superego to demonstrate how the compulsory call "to check your privilege" at best provides a limited critical value and, at worst, is hegemonic and complicit with the very racist and sexist ideologies it seeks to undermine. Finally, I reread Marcuse's call for undeserved happiness along Žižekian lines as effecting a shift from privilege to fantasy: from the liberal imperative to "check your privilege" to the psychoanalytic injunction to "check our fantasy."

The critique of privilege theory has emanated from two main camps: the Right condemns privilege theory for creating a victim industry and helping to legitimize a stifling atmosphere of political correctness (one in which marginalized groups—the unprivileged—are seen as exempt from criticism while white, Christian, heterosexual males are fair game), while the Left questions and complicates privilege theory's approach for its failure to truly get at oppression, seeing it as reformist rather than revolutionary. Both Marcuse and Žižek gesture toward a third line of critique. Their objections to privilege theory share much with the Left's verdict that this approach does not go far enough—and, at least in the case of Žižek, the Right's suspicion of political correctness, of tolerant liberal multiculturalism more generally—but, as we shall see, they converge here for significantly different reasons.

Again, in its best forms, privilege theory...


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