Monday, December 12, 2011

A long drive with Zizek

Over thanksgiving break, I had to drive for 8 hours to and from Asheville, NC. During that time, rather than singing loudly to music, I decided to listen to various lectures and podcasts I had downloaded. Although I listened to many episodes of Entitled Opinions, a podcast from Robert Harrison at Stanford, the most enlightening thing I listened to was various recorded lectures from Slavoj Zizek.

A long time ago, I read a couple of Zizek's books and have been following recordings of his work online since college. Zizek is generally considered a legitimate "authority" in my current institution on literary theory, politics, and philosophy. His arguments and readings of texts are interesting and clear. But more importantly, he is simply a blast to listen to while driving.  When describing my activities in my car, I would say I was listening to "Father Zizek's sermons" because it is really like listening to a preacher. He has even described himself as "dogmatic." Of course, I am aware of the ironies in designating him "Father" Zizek. For one, as a Lacanian, "father" recalls the Name of the Father and the symbolic order. While Zizek is a brilliant reader of the symbolic order (the various texts, films, and more often than not, jokes), many consider him as the one that has done the most to elucidate Lacan's Real.

But I'm less interested in pondering the Real as traumatic event. As a nascent rhetoric and composition scholar and a graduate instructor, I began to focus on how Zizek makes his arguments. Interestingly enough, I found that Zizek uses the very basic device I was teaching my students (although in a very unique way): "Most people read this/think this as x, but I am going to argue that it is really y." Indeed, he tends to take a "common sense" way of thinking and turns it on its head. I am aware that this is not unique to Zizek, but it screamed out at me that this was the main thing he was doing.  Some examples are in order.

Instead of Dostoevesky's "If there is no God, everything is permitted" (although in an interesting digression he indicates when this famous quote was attributed to Dostoevesky), he argues that "If there is a God, then everything is permitted." He begins with this simple transformation and proceeds to draw implications from this. If I remember correctly, related to this statement, he argues that while most people see Christianity as a restrictive, moralistic, joyless religion and paganism as the religion of enjoyment, it is really the opposite.

Zizek points out that by taking into account that we all we meet with his death at the end, paganism is shot through with knowledge of death and decay. In contrast, Christianity allows us to enjoy life with the knowledge that there is eternity--you don't have to worry about death. If Christ has died on the cross for our sins, he has taken the "price" of death, decay, and sin upon himself, so that sin becomes possible. If you are a believer, you put all of the debt on Christ/God himself and then you are free to enjoy.

Zizek makes a very convincing case for this latter position. Surprisingly, Zizek admires certain aspects of Christianity. The essence of Christianity as the death of god "for himself," is the killing of God as the "big Other." According to Zizek's reading, it is God saying, "ok, now you are by yourselves." There is no big Other to judge us, but we must work out our own salvation, in fear and trembling.

My own personal realization comes from thinking about the nature of this big Other. For Lacan, the point is to realize that there is no big Other. The problem is thatwe think there is a big Other figured as maybe "society"  that wants something from us. In the psychoanalytic situation, the analyst plays this role of the fantasy big Other. We think that the analyst is looking for something--as if he was a torturer that wants to bring out the truth. We may go in and say "you probably want me to talk about my mother, but the problem really isn't my mother--you psychoanalysts are all the same." This is why Lacan thinks that the analyst needs to be silent. The analysand  thinks the analyst as this big Other that wants something from him or her.

This is why psychoanalysis aims at its own termination. The analysis is over when the analysand no longer needs the analyst. The analysis is over when the analysand understands that the analyst does not want anything from him.

So why am I going on about the big Other? Because I must confess that I feel like I certainly still believe in a big Other that somehow will judge my actions in reference to some truth or in reference to what that Other wants. Allow me to digress here to another article I was reading concerning art and politics. In the book Tactical Biopolitics,Claire Pentecost tells  how she is bothered by her students' declarations that they do not want their work to become "too political" or "too didactic." Political is like a dirty word for artists. Why?

According to Pentecost, to be political is to have a common opinion, an opinion that is not "one's own." Earlier in her article (or maybe it was another one in that book, I forgot), she talks about the current "rhetoric of the personal." We tend to think about opinions as my opinion. I have an opinion, I have a position. Art, however, tends to be more ambiguous, not necessarily taking a definite position or an opinion. If I remember correctly,  Deleuze and Guattari say in What is Philosophy, "art does not have an opinion." Artists want their work to be somehow unique.

I bring this up because this relates to "my" big Other (it is not really 'my' big other), a call of conscience that speaks from god knows where. Perhaps a "call of conscience" is not quite correct here. Perhaps a better way of saying it is a "devil's advocate" reaction. It is the knee jerk reaction to question whatever position is presented to me, be it liberal, Marxist, or conservative--I seek its flaws whenever presented. If a conservative speaks to me, I present the liberal argument and vice-versa.

An example: I would like to think that given my own generally liberal position (or at least a position that I'd like to believe I take), I would be unequivocally in support of Occupy Wall Street, which paints a certain part of the population (rich corporate executives) as the problem. Now, I tend to think that to claim that the occupiers are engaging in "class warfare" is a bit ridiculous, but I still have the conviction that it is a bit more complicated than the protesters make it. I still have this knee jerk reaction to defend the 1% as those who are probably decent people just trying to make a living and love their family.

Now we are getting to the crux of the problem: the distinction between interpersonal relations and how those people function in society given their roles of power and privilege. It's the idea that if we could only "understand" those people,  if we could "get their side of the story."we could excuse their acts  Zizek thinks this is problematic because the "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" are always flawed and we are always going to put ourselves in a positive light. The point is that we can't understand everyone completely--that there remains some "radical other" within ourselves that we cannot know. In order to show that this is false, Zizek uses extreme cases: would we say that if only we understood Hitler he would not have done what he did or we could understand what he did? Most of us would say no.

So here we must speak of preserving the otherness of the other. Perhaps this is the only way we can avoid meaningless relativism and absurd justification.

At the same time, we cannot merely dismiss someone like Hitler as a "monster" or some sort of Force of Evil (nor can or should we do to the same to George Bush, President Obama, whoever the media wants to compare to Hitler these days). The terrifying part is that we are all possibly "monstrous" but not in a sublime, transcendent sense, but in the very way we allow ourselves to be part of a system of extermination. This is precisely the point of realizing our non-innocence in what we would call "monstrous" acts in the world. Pretending that we could ever "understand" this, as if it is merely a question of something we would say, only perpetuates a world where we seek to justify our acts rather than a world of responsibility.

And this is really what ethics comes down to: responsibility. The responsibility for our actions, for our words, and not only for "our own," but others as well.  In a world where our slightest action has an indirect but potent effect on others--in a globalized and networked world--we are responsible for more and more even if it is easier and easier to hide it.

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