Hey, Slavoj Zizek: Deaf People Aren’t Metaphors and Interpreters Aren’t For You
December 19th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Slavoj Zizek’s The ‘fake’ Mandela memorial interpreter said it all is such a train wreck of a piece that I hardly know where to begin. Somehow, Zizek manages to take an access issue basic to the Deaf community and spin it so completely that I’m left wondering whether he even knows that Deaf people exist.

To begin, Zizek interprets the Deaf community’s outrage at being denied access to the Mandela memorial in such a bizarre manner that it almost beggars belief:

“What lurked behind these concerns was the feeling that Thamsanqa Jantjie’s appearance was a kind of miracle – as if he had popped up from nowhere, or from another dimension of reality. This feeling seemed further confirmed by the repeated assurances from deaf organisations that his signs had no meaning, that they corresponded to no existing sign language, as if to quell the suspicion that, maybe, there was some hidden message delivered through his gestures – what if he was signalling to aliens in an unknown language?”

So, Deaf people protested the lack of access to “quell the suspicion” that some sinister form of communication was going on? And here I thought they were just outraged about a lack of access. I’m not sure how much further toward Othering members of the Deaf community Zizek could go, but …. oh, look! There’s this:

“And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered.”

Ah, so now Deaf people are “the underprivileged and hindered” (excuse me while I spit) whose interpreters are not for them, but for people who can hear. Seriously? At about this point, I’m wondering whether Zizek himself is signaling to aliens in a language I don’t understand, because most of us here on planet Earth are pretty sure that sign language interpreters are for people who can’t hear. Could someone quell my concerns, please?

And of course, for Zizek, because the interpreter was only there as window dressing to make hearing people feel deliciously liberal and inclusive, his very presence is nothing but a metaphor for the emptiness of the proceedings altogether:

“And was this also not the truth about the whole of the Mandela memorial ceremony? All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense.”

The only nonsense, as far as I can tell, is Zizek’s insistence on speaking for the Deaf community, asserting that intepreters aren’t really for Deaf people, and then making a civil rights issue a metaphor for his political agenda. Perhaps if Mr. Zizek were to be quiet and ponder the issue for a few minutes, he might realize the obvious: that a man who was not a skilled interpreter, and who describes himself as mentally disabled, was unable to avail Deaf people of their civil right to share an event viewed by millions of people all over the world.

The lack of communication access is the issue, Mr. Zizek. The rest, indeed, is nonsense.


Zizek, Slavoj. “The ‘fake’ Mandela memorial interpreter said it all.” The Guardian. December 16, 2013. Accessed December 19, 2013.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

8 Responses  
  • Sumiko Saulson writes:
    July 17th, 20249:56 amat

    Wow. Slavoj Zizek’s level of hubris here is simply unbelievable.

  • Dominick writes:
    July 17th, 20249:56 amat

    I have been exposed to Zizek, a lot, being a film major in college, whose professor loves Zizek so profoundly. Thus, I have had the chance to hear him speak numerous times, interpret his texts repeatedly, etc.

    I took an entirely different thing from what he was saying. You have to read Zizek for the philosopher he is. I did not take this at all to mean this is his personal opinion.

    For me, his entire piece is on ableism. He states the question, are deaf interpreters for the deaf? If asked, Zizek, do you believe deaf people should have interpreters I believe he would give an emphatic yes. I read his point as able-bodied people feel good about hiring interpreters. It gives those in charge a sense of “hey, I helped out these less fortunate people!”

    I encourage you to watch the film by Astra Taylor featuring her sister who has a disability, Zizek, and several other philosophers. It’s An Unexamined Life. Given his relationship with Taylor (she’s made multiple films with him), I doubt he truly sees people with disabilities as invalids. Again, I believe he was posting tongue in cheek, the able bodied mindset towards the deaf.

    I believe he was saying the able-bodied government let the situation happen because really they just care about saving face. Oh, look, some guy is waving his hands. Awww those poor unfortunate people have accommodations. We succeeded. That is what he meant. Are interpreters hired to accommodate or are they hired to make the able-bodied people feel good because they allowed such an accommodation? It’s certainly something to consider.

    Try re-reading the piece with the perspective it is tongue in cheek and see if your opinion changes. Just my 2 cents!

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      July 17th, 20249:58 amat

      Dominick. You took the words out of my mouth. This was exactly what I took from the Zizek article. I thought that he was expressing something that no one really wants to talk about. The “feel good” reactions that non-disabled people get when something is provided and then don’t understand when we get upset about some aspect of what is provided.

      From that perspective the article was on the money.

  • julesinrose writes:
    July 17th, 20249:57 amat

    It’s really interesting to me how differently all of us read/see/interpret the world. I really appreciated Zizek’s article. Yes, to Zizak, the fact that the interpreter was signing gibberish was an important metaphor. That doesn’t minimize anything or anyone else, to my mind. Zizek wasn’t “using” deaf people any more than he was using anyone else to make his points, and I agree with him that many public “displays” of access are done for show. This is all “typical Zizek.” I find him to be an overstating blowhard a good deal of the time, but that’s his style, but I think he’s one of the good guys.

  • julesinrose writes:
    July 17th, 20249:57 amat

    I wish I’d read Dominick’s comment before I attempted to write mine. I agree wholeheartedly, though I’m not sure “tongue in cheek” is quite the right word. The last paragraph of the Zizek piece was quite serious, and I’d venture to say that if one does not agree with that, then the entire thing is nonsense. I happen to agree with it.

  • dani fried writes:
    July 17th, 20249:57 amat

    Hi yes I think he’s just making the point – and I think it’s true – that often, politicians and others have sign language interpreters as props or to make themselves look good ie aren’t we so great for providing access (even if they never let the Deaf community know, so as an interpreter, I frequently find myself interpreting for nobody). I don’t think he’s saying that interpreters aren’t useful for Deaf people, just that often that’s not why we’ve been hired. However, the fact is that interpreters wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for strong lobbying from the Deaf community. I just hope that this entire debacle will result in greater community awareness that interpreters need to yes, be there, but also be qualified – and that Deaf people need to be informed that there will be qualified interpreters available; all else is mere tokenism.

  • lrb writes:
    July 17th, 20249:57 amat

    I’m not familiar with Zizek or his work. I can see that the comments could be tongue in cheek. That doesn’t make them ok. He, as did many other commentators, stepped into a space on commenting on this issue that should have been occupied by people who use sign language. I didn’t systematically check whether tv channels and webpages etc engaged with sign language users. But John Snow on Channel 4 in the uk did. He had an interpreter telling him that a deaf woman, who he had watching the signs with him, said the signing was gibberish. So the most involvement I saw from sign users was to give evidence that John Snow could use to give comment.
    Oh for goodness sake.

  • Patricia Raswant writes:
    July 17th, 20249:57 amat

    An interpreter is for both Deaf and hearing people. Hearing people who do not know sign language needs the interpreter to convey their message to Deaf people, vice versa.

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