Monday 6 June 2005

Slavoj Žižek: Respect for otherness? No thanks

Birkbeck Derrida Lecture Series Birrkbeck College, 20 May 2005

Žižek’s performance on 20 May had something of a stand-up comedy routine to it. He sat on his own, at a small table on a stage in front of a packed lecture theatre. His talk was generously sprinkled with jokes and amusing anecdotes, and by the end of it Žižek was characteristically drenched in sweat. He left under rapturous applause.

But for all the bravura, there was real substance. Žižek’s aim was to provide a critique of what he saw as passing for ‘belief’ today, through an engagement with what Derrida, towards the end of his life, had understood as belief. From this critique, Žižek elaborated on how an alternative notion of belief can inform our understandings of justice, and of politics more generally. In effect, in recasting belief, Žižek was attempting to reunite politics and ethics, to bring back, as he has argued elsewhere, a politics of Truth as opposed to a politics of ‘pragmatic considerations and compromises which always and by definition fall short of the unconditional ethical demand’ (1).

Žižek’s starting point was what he saw to be a shift in Derrida’s thought. He argued that the ‘late Derrida’ had an understanding of belief that was ‘deontologised’, that is it was a belief that was never to be realised in this world. It was a belief that was forever ‘to come’ (à venir). This unwillingness to ‘ontologise’ belief, in other words to ‘pass to the act’, and to take responsibility for the consequences, Žižek has identified as being a broader trend within contemporary left intellectuals, what Lacan described as ’le narcissisme de la chose perdue’, the narcissism of lost causes (2). Elsewhere, Žižek has elaborated on this point by distinguishing between belief and faith, where faith is the far more radical gesture. As an example, one can believe in ghosts, but one cannot believe them, that is have faith in them. In this way, ‘belief in’ is a displaced kind of belief, which doesn’t requires anything like the first person singular affirmation of faith (3).

In this lecture, Žižek elaborated on this point in terms of belief as counter-factual. What this means is that there is a radical anti-empiricism at the heart of belief, which manifests itself as an assertion of will over and above what may appear evident from simple personal experience. One example Žižek gave was of a husband returning home, finding his wife in bed with a lover, and the wife imploring her husband to believe her words rather than his own eyes. Another example was Anne Frank’s diaries, where at the end she affirms her belief in the ‘divine light of humanity’, in spite of what she has seen and known. Žižek counterposed this idea of belief with contemporary Christian fundamentalism in the United States. Citing examples of fundamentalists who defend their beliefs through science, Žižek argued that it was precisely this attempt to rationalise belief, to make it answerable to science, that exposed the hollow core of contemporary fundamentalism. Addressing the debate about the return of religion in the West, Žižek’s argument suggests that this return has to be put in the context of trends within contemporary society. Fundamentalism today says more about society than it does about religion per se.

Bringing together ethics and politics, Žižek argued that this radical anti-empiricism of real belief should be translated into a willingness to abstract when dealing with questions of justice. Building upon a critique of Levinasian ethics, where justice is reduced to feeling pity for the other, justice should be based instead upon an ability to ignore the finer details of otherness, and to judge a situation abstractly. Paraphrasing Graham Greene, Žižek argued that if hate is a failure of the imagination (4), then pity is the failure of the capacity of abstraction. Justice must therefore be colourblind ie. it must abstract from the details such as colour, it must ignore the camouflage of the human face and look straight at abstract justice (5). Politically, the implication was that those who had opposed intervention in Kosovo, for instance, those whom Žižek had disparagingly labeled ‘beautiful soul leftists’, were refusing the moment of ontologisation. That is, for all their rhetoric about human rights, when applied to the concrete situation of Kosovo in 1999, these leftists refused to get their hands dirty by accepting to call in the NATO planes.

Without having to agree with Žižek on the merits of the 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo, his account of belief and ontologisation usefully reveals a contradiction at the heart of humanitarianism - that the only way such a normative agenda can ever be fully ontologised, ie. carried out in practice, is through the invocation of state power, in this case NATO jets, which in turn replaces the pretensions to universality with the grubby reality of realpolitik. Without accepting this, human rights activists remain believers only in the Derridean sense of infinite deferral, or ‘belief to come’.

In seeking to unite politics with ethics, Žižek usefully exposes the political choices and consequences behind actions such as humanitarian intervention, and others which involve moral grandstanding without any idea of how this translates into a real intervention in the world. At the same time, his distinction between real belief as counter-factual, and the ersatz belief of contemporary fundamentalism, is a valuable way of understanding some of the peculiar features of today’s world.

1) Taken from the introduction, ‘From Christ to Lenin… and Back’, of On Belief (Routledge: London). 2002. p1.
2) Zizek, ibid p3. A similar critique informs Zizek’s reading of another French philosopher Alain Badiou. Zizek argues that Badiou’s radical separation of his two categories of Being and the Event leaves him open to the accusation, not necessarily justified, of seeking to bring back a laicized version of religious revelation.
3) Zizek, ibid p110.
4) Which reflected a Levinasian way of looking at things i.e. you have to imagine the details of the other’s face to be able to replace hate with love.
5) Zizek explained how those who were able to see through camouflage in wartime were those who were colourblind, because for them all the details and subtleties of sight that camouflage exploits were stripped away.


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