Tribute to Slavoj Zizek

3 08 2018

My current relationship with the thought of Slavoj Zizek is complicated. A few months ago, I would have been far more enthusiastic about him than I am now. After saturating myself with his heavy accented English lectures, as well as reading many of his books, I have concluded, along with many others, that he is the intellectual clown of the petit-bourgeois left. That’s not to say that I don’t find much of what he writes useful or even compelling. I think he engages popular culture far more effectively than any other voice on the left. More “orthodox” Marxists have a much more ossified view of the world, as if we are still trapped in 1968, 1917, or even worse, 1848. Zizek by no means has this problem. While I may not be able to take his views on Kung Fu Panda seriously, I can at least admire the audacity of someone who tries to draw theory out of something so ridiculous and banal.

All the same, I think his books and various engagements with aspects of modern culture are obscurantist and border on intellectual titillation. At times, his random engagements with popular culture and modern capitalism seem to be akin to a dope addict trying to kick his addiction by describing what a particular high feels like. I know that I am brainwashed by ideology, and am often most brainwashed when I try to rid myself of ideology. I also know that capitalism has a lot to do with it, and even I share his pessimism regarding being able to change all of this. At the same time, when you have a young family, and children facing a bleak future at least on the societal level, you cannot afford such pessimism. One could argue that pessimism is just realism with the rose-colored glasses taken off, but one could also argue that being a pessimist and choosing to have children is the worst barbarism of all. Hope, like reason, is something that separates us from beasts and monsters.
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Mexico as symptom

24 01 2011

…Thus the dream is that, since the excess was introduced from outside, i.e. is the work of an alien intruder, its elimination would enable us to obtain again a stable social organism whose parts form a harmonious corporate body, where, in contrast to capitalism’s constant social displacement, everybody would again occupy its own place. The function of the Master is to dominate the excess by locating its cause in a clearly defined social agency: “It is they who steal our enjoyment, who, by means of their excessive attitude, introduce imbalance and antagonism.” With the figure of the Master, the antagonism inherent in the social structure is transformed into a relationship of power, a struggle for domination between us and them, those who cause antagonistic imbalance.

Perhaps this matrix also helps us grasp the reemergence of nationalist chauvinism in Eastern Europe as a kind of “shock-absorber” against sudden exposure to the capitalist openness and imbalance. It is as if, in the very moment when the bond, the chain preserving free development of capitalism, i.e. a deregulated production of excess, was broken, it was countered by a demand for a new Master who will rein it in. What one demands is the establishment of a stable and clearly defined social body which will restrain capitalism’s destructive potential by cutting off the “excessive” element; and since this social body is experienced as that of a nation, the cause of any imbalance “spontaneously” assumes the form of a “national enemy”.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

The book from which this quote was taken was not an easy one to read. As in many of Zizek’s books, this wasn’t so much a book that held to one theme, but used certain themes from Kant and Hegel to elaborate upon a number of themes. For example, the chapter that preceded the one where this quote is found takes its inspiration from a theme from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. In the last chapter, “Enjoy your nation as yourself”, Zizek tries to break open a matter near to the history he was living: the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s. Zizek uses the tools of Lacanian analysis and critical theory to discuss why these countries broke apart the way they did, often in violent and genocidal blood baths. As you can see from the above, Zizek attributes this to the re-entrance of these regions into the capitalist sphere. The shock from this transition led to these peoples trying to find stability again in the midst of the societal chaos re-introduced with generalized commodity production.
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Notes on Zizek’s Christianity

13 01 2011

When Christian commentators get excited about Slavoj Zizek’s dialogue with Christianity, it seems to be sort of like the biggest high school nerd getting excited because the head cheerleader casually said hi to him in the hallway. As one of my mentors told me some time ago, for anyone to get excited about intellectual developments in Christianity in the last fifty years is a little like becoming obsessed with the politics of a kindergarten sand box. It goes without saying that we are on the defensive. It should go without saying that even the most militant Christian ideologue doesn’t believe in half the words that come out of his mouth. As Zizek would point out, most fundamentalists say and do absurd things precisely because they don’t really believe, not because they do.
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Notes on the divine contingent

2 12 2010

The common expectation of the religious person in the face of a secular critique is that only the divine can save humanity from the universal threat of contingency. Even Heidegger said: “Only a god can save us”. My main contention over the past few years is that the divine itself includes contingency; one could even say that it is contingent par excellence. In principio erat Verbum does not somehow mean that things are ordered perfectly according to human understanding. It may mean that they are ordered according to another that we do not understand, but to say such a thing is ridiculous in itself.
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On not going back again

22 11 2010

The ultimate anti-Hegelian argument is the very fact of the post-Hegelian break: what even the most fanatical partisan of Hegel cannot deny is that something changed after Hegel, that a new era of thought began which can no longer be accounted for in Hegelian terms of absolute conceptual mediation; this rupture occurs in different guises, from Schelling’s assertion of the abyss of pre-logical Will (vulgarized later by Schopenhauer) and Kierkegaard’s insistence on the uniqueness of faith and subjectivity, through Marx’s assertion of actual socio-economic life-process, and the full autonomization of mathematicized natural sciences, up to Freud’s motif of “death-drive” as a repetition that insists beyond all dialectical mediation. Something happened here, there is a clear break between before and after, and while one can argue that Hegel already announces this break, that he is the last of idealist metaphysicians and the first of post-metaphysical historicists, one cannot really be a Hegelian after this break, Hegelianism has lost its innocence forever. To act like a full Hegelian today is the same as to write tonal music after the Schoenberg revolution.

-Slavoj Zizek, from this site

This is supposedly the opening to the preface of Zizek’s new book on Hegel, set to come out next year. I think one could apply such principles to Catholicism, but in this case, I think the formative event for the Church was the enthronement of the goddess of Reason at Notre Dame Cathedral during the French Revolution. After that, in many places, the Other entered into the consciousness of Catholicism. Catholicism began to be defined by the Other, by what it opposed and what it sought to defend. (One can say that this happened with Protestantism, though in most places, the fact that cuius regio eius religio was the rule of thumb probably meant that average Catholics knew little of the “Other” in most places.) Anyone who has had to suffer through reading a 19th century Papal encyclical would see this quite easily. Vatican II was in a sense a moment of clarity; the idea that there could be no going back to the pre-revolutionary world. If anything, the much touted “restoration” of Benedict XVI is a bit farcical. Revolution is the name of the game no matter how conservative one pretends to be.
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On bureaucracy

18 11 2010

The trap to be avoided here is the opposition of the “external” social law (legal regulations, “mere legality”) and the higher “internal” moral law, where the external social law may strike us as contingent and irrational, while the internal law is fully assumed as “our own”: we should radically abandon the notion that external social institutions betray the authentic inner experience of the true Transcendence of Otherness (in the guise, for example, of the opposition between the authentic “inner” experience of the divine and its “external” reification into a religious institution in which the religious experience proper degenerates into an ideology legitimizing power relations). If there is a lesson to be learned from Kafka, it is that, in the opposition between internal and external, the divine dimension is on the side of the external. What can be more “divine” than the traumatic encounter with the bureaucracy at its craziest – when, say, a bureaucrat tells us that, legally, we don’t exist? It is in such encounters that we catch a glimpse of another order beyond mere earthy everyday reality. There is no experience of the divine without such a suspension of the Ethical. And far from being simply external, this very externality (to sense, to symbolic integration) holds us from within. Kafka’s topic is precisely the obscene jouissance through which bureaucracy addresses the subject on the level of the disavowed innermost (“ex-timate,” as Lacan would have put it) real kernel of his being.

-Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity

Perhaps this is tied into the idea that perhaps we are not as alienated from the divine as we think. We are far more credulous when it comes to our own institutions, far more given to give them the benefit of the doubt than other societies.

I think even the most fervent person believes more in bureacracy than his own particular creed. At least that is his real modus operandi as he goes through life.

I am just posting this because I want to watch it later

24 10 2010

Zizek reads Hegel through Lacan

18 10 2010

Slavoj Zizek’s book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, is not an easy work to cipher. So anything I jot down here may or may not be representative of what he actually says there. It has been ages since I read Jacques Lacan, and like the vast majority of people, I didn’t really “get it” when I read him. Whether or not it is at all possible to “get him” is the subject of another series of notes.

When I read books like this, I try to grab on to one idea and see how it interacts with all of the others that I seem to be having trouble with. In this case, that idea is a re-reading of the Hegelian dialectic. For all of you philosophical virgins out there, the Hegelian dialectic is commonly understood as a method for understanding how ideas move in history. The idea (a thesis) is negated by something (an antithesis) only to reach a higher level of understanding (synthesis). Zizek’s problem with this model is that the reading is, in a sense, too positive. The synthesis here is not a higher idea that emerges after a process of negation. It is, rather, a change of perspective in terms of how one sees the original thesis. It is not that the synthesis is something entirely new, but rather it is the thesis viewed in its negativity, the thesis avec negation, the objet petit a, the object as a lack. As Zizek writes in a related essay on the subject:

It would be a complete misunderstanding of the dialectical relationship between Knowledge and Truth if this rapport were viewed as a progressive approximation whereby the subject, driven by the operation of Truth, passes from one figure of knowledge (having proved its ‘falsity’, its insufficiency) to another that is much closer to Truth, etc., until a final agreement between knowledge and Truth is achieved in the form of Absolute Knowledge. From this perspective, Truth is conceived of as a substantial entity, an In-Itself, and the dialectical process is reduced to a simple, asymptotic movement, a progressive approximation to the Truth, in the sense of Victor Hugo’s famous saying: ‘Science is an asymptote of Truth. It ever approaches but ever touches it.’ On the contrary, the Hegelian coincidence of the movement toward truth with truth itself implies that there already has contact with the truth: truth itself must change with the changing knowledge, which is to say that, once knowledge no longer corresponds to truth, we must not merely adjust knowledge accordingly rather transform both poles – the insufficiency of knowledge, its apropos of the truth, radically indicates a lack, a non-achievement at the heart of truth itself.
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Scenic roads that lead to nowhere

23 09 2010

This was an interesting video, but as with many things in Zizek, I don’t see where he’s going with it. The ride gives a panoramic view of things, but I wouldn’t get in the car to get anywhere with him.

Stolen from this site

On credulity

26 08 2010

I just watched a film on Slavoj Zizek, who I will no doubt comment on in the future. (The above has nothing to do with the film, but was an interesting clip from another source.) One point that Zizek made was that we live in a much more credulous age than our ancestors (just as we live in a more restrictive age). He made the point by saying that a deconstructionist will never say that “this is a glass of water”, but rather something like, “if we are to accept the dominant discourse wherein we can assert that words can indicate the presence of objects, and if we are to trust our sensory perception, etc. etc., then one could assert that this is a glass of water”. For me such an illustration sort of alludes to various issues of assent that I have been speaking of recently. Zizek also draws a line between culture and religion. When religion is not taken seriously, it is known as culture. It exists in the social space, but without much “moral impact” (like existence of Santa Claus for adults). When people begin to take it seriously, it becomes religion as modern people know it.

When the friars first encountered Mexican neophytes at the beginning of the conquest in the sixteenth century, the indigenous people were taught the Credo, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria, and that was pretty much it. Within at least a generation or so, one of them would be able to say that he believed in every aspect of the creed, but would he believe in the same way as a modern person? Modern religiosity across the board has always meant “interiorization”. It is not enough to “follow the rules” or to do something “out of obedience”. Like the hypothetical child in the second video, you have to want to believe in the absolute sense, and will every article of your creed. It has to consume and define you.

This sort of goes with my comment on Stockholm syndrome religiosity: if I am not being treated like shit in terms of my most profound beliefs, the experience must somehow be inauthentic. Everyone wants to be a Kierkegaard with their own Abrahamic leap of faith.