Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Great Reads I: Žižek

Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, Or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For

Žižek is not a faithful Marxist in several aspects, being equally indebted to Hegel and Lacan; nevertheless, he has remained a staunch atheist. Yet, tabling the point that Marx was far more sympathetic toward religion-- "an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering"-- than the infamous "opium" utterance (removed from context) credits him with, Žižek does break with orthodox Marxism in his defense of the Christian tradition as a force not only helpful but necessary to liberation. This, in essence, is the thesis of this relatively short book. This probably isn't the best place to start if you're new to Žižek, but then again, I don't think anywhere is. It demands far less knowledge of psychoanalysis than The Ticklish Subject, and-- this is the clincher for me-- less knowledge of German idealism than, say, The Fragile Absolute. Of course I can't take some of the pop culture references seriously (My Best Friend's Wedding, Kung-Fu Panda): it seems to be a far less annoying equivalent of pomo writers like David Foster-Wallace who think allusions to mass culture and long hair will render their poor writing less intolerably convoluted and pretentious. Still, as it's difficult to think of a cultural critic more widely-read by those outside the confines of academia, there is clearly a populist element here. I think.
  1.  “In short, there is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.”

  2. "Pre-Christian religions remain at the level of ‘wisdom’; they emphasize the insufficiency of every temporal finite object, and preach either moderation in pleasures or the withdrawal from temporal reality in favour of the True Divine Object which alone can provide Infinite Bliss. Christianity, on the contrary, offers Christ as a mortal-temporal individual, and insists that belief in the temporal Event of Incarnation is the only path to eternal truth and salvation. In this precise sense, Christianity is a ‘religion of Love’: in love, one singles out, focuses on, a finite temporal object which ‘means more than anything else.’"
  3. "In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbour to my mirror-image, or to a step along the path of my own self-realization. Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my Neighbour-- the Neighbour remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. (Another aspect of this same constellation-- the reverse of the fact that the Jewish God is emptied of jouissance, reduced to a self-referential Name, to the subjectivity of a pure, non-substantial enunciator-- is that the only terrain on which to demonstrate your devotion to the Divine Law is that of ‘love for thy neighbour,’ of your social-ethical activity-- again, there is no direct short cut to contact with the Divine dimension through the ‘inner path’ of mystical spiritual self-realization….This injunction [to love thy neighbour] prohibits nothing; rather, it calls for an activity beyond the confines of the Law, enjoining us always to do more and more to ‘love’ our neighbour not merely in his imaginary dimension...not merely in his symbolic dimension (the abstract symbolic subject of Rights), but as the Other in the very abyss of the Real, the Other as a properly inhuman partner, ‘irrational,’ radically evil, capricious, revolting, short, beyond the Good."
  4. "Here [in the Pagan cosmos] the supreme Good is the global balance of Principles, while Evil stands for their derailment or derangement, for the excessive assertion of one Principle to the detriment of others (of the masculine Principle to the detriment of the feminine, of Reason to the detriment of Feeling…); the cosmic balance is then re-established through the work of Justice which, with its inexorable necessity, sets things straight again by crushing the derailed element. With regard to the social body, an individual is ‘good’ when he acts in accordance with his special place in the social edifice...and Evil occurs when some particular strata or individuals are no longer satisfied with this place. Christianity (and, in its own way, Buddhism) introduced into this global balanced cosmic Order a principle that is totally foreign to it...the principle according to which each individual has immediate access to universality...Buddha pointedly ignored castes and (after some hesitation, true) even sexual difference. And do not Christ’s scandalous words from Saint Luke’s Gospel point in the same direction: ‘If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-- yes, even his own life-- he cannot be my disciple’ (14:26)? Here, of course, we are not dealing with a simple brutal hatred demanded by a cruel and jealous God: family relations stand here metaphorically for the entire socio-symbolic network, for any particular ethnic ‘substance’ that determines our place in the global Order of Things. "

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