May 21, 2005

The face is the ultimate ethical trap


In the flesh - 'the shit behind the text' as he put it - Slavoj Zizek is a frenzy of tourettic-tics and spasms, symptoms of the prodigious energy that is the key both to his appeal and to what is most frustrating about him. Bat observed that Zizek 'writes like a DJ', splicing one theoretical track into another, producing books in the way that DJs produce sets. You become used to seeing familiar material cut and pasted into new books, which often function more like remixes than original texts. His lecture last night - a contribution to the 'Adieu Derrida' series he has convened for Birkbeck - at least started with a 'new track', a 'settling of accounts' with Derrida and Deconstruction.

For the first twenty five minutes or so, Zizek stuck to his brief - but soon lapsed into what has become a frustrating vice, a kind of breathless lateralophiliac jaunting from theme to theme which more often than not leaves the ostensible subject of the theoretical dérive a fading memory.

Zizek has tended to be critical of deconstruction, but his glancing discussion of the merits of the Derridean method last night made more of a case for deconstruction than two of its 'its leading proponents', Jean-Luc Nancy and Hillis Miller, managed in the frankly dreadful opening two lectures of this series. Nancy and Miller exhibited the painfully protracted, predictable ponderousness which has become the hallmark of deconstruction in its senescent phase. Miller wanted us to believe that the 'late Derrida' was a polyphonic linguo-conceptual magician, 'playing' micro-variations of the same phrase in a bid to spin-out mortality. But the examples he cited turned out to be not so much demonstrations of an exorbitant effusion of linguistic excess as tedious permutations of minimally different microvariations. Boredom or death: that really is the opposition deconstruction has foisted upon us in its dying years. (Although, as you listen to one of these lectures, you feel that this particular binary opposition has been deconstructed by your own nervous system as it rigor mortifies into a M.Waldemar-like living death of sheer ennui.).

So it was gratifying to hear Zizek cleaving to the early Derrida and definitively rejecting the late work. The thesis he sketched - and of course, this being Zizek, didn't fill out - was that the late Derrida had retreated from the unsettling negative theology of his early texts into the comforting embrace of a certain Kantianism. The play of differance had given way to a pathos of an unattainable justice and the messianic promise of otherness. This regression was marked, ironically enough, by the turn to the political in something like Spectres of Marx. Here, Derrida begins to write of a 'democracy to come', a democracy that, like God, already contradicts itself. Derrida invites us to embrace both the promise and its inevitable failure. Zizek, by contrast, urged us to 'drop the promise', forget the failure, and occupy a pure in-between.

In Lacanian terms, the late Derrida was in thrall to desire, whereas the early Derrida, the Derrida of differance, was a theorist of drive. Desire fixates upon an object that is impossible, whereas drive circulates around a lost object. In the case of desire, the object remains the ultimate point of reference, the source to which always-raised, always-dashed messianic hopes are consecrated. The object the drive excessively fixates upon, meanwhile, is in no sense an ersatz or secondary substitute for an impossible, unattainable object; for the drive, there is no 'thing-in-itself'.

The figure most responsible for sheperding Derrida into his late tragic pietism was of course Levinas, so it was inevitable that Zizek should then launch into a demolition of Levinas' ethics of 'openness to the other'. In Zizek's account, Levinas' ethics are assymetrical: I am responsible for the other but the other is not responsible for me. The very existence of the subject itself already imposes a terrible ethical burden. How is it possible to be without being a murderer? If, as Spinoza claims, my existence is defined as the will to persist in my own being, then I pose a threat to other beings simply by existing at all.

Zizek rejected this move on Spinozist grounds. Spinoza does not claim, as Levinas maintains, that my existence is achieved at the expense of others (that sounds more like Nietzsche, actually) but that my existence is fully immanent in a network of relations which are externalized. Instead of the question, 'How can I exist without being a murderer?', Zizek posed a more radical one: 'Do I exist in the first place?' Or am I rather a hole in the order of being?

In any case, the true ethical step would involve, not respecting the other, but erasing its face, or at least blurring it back into the 'faceless background' from which it is distinguished. Zizek cited Greene's observation in The Power and the Glory that it is impossible to feel hate if you visualize a 'man or a woman's face'; but if 'hatred is a failure of imagination', then, for Zizek, pity is a failure of abstraction. Justice is cold and abstract, and 'the face is the ultimate ethical trap'.

In many ways the most fascinating aspect of Zizek's lecture was the next section, in which he aimed to definitvely differentiate both Derrida and himself from postmodernism. On what grounds? Well, for Zizek the phrase that sums postmodernity up can be found in the famous line from Yeats' 'The Second Coming': 'the ceremony of innocence is drowned'. The innocent is not the one who lacks knowledge, but the one who believes in spite of knowing. Exemplary of this stance was Anne Frank's heartbreaking conviction that there is a divine spark in all human beings. In 'normal conditions' such an observation would be banal; in the context of Frank's situation, it amounts to a sublime belief. 'I know very well that things are as I see them, but I don't believe it.'

This assertion of the counter-factual is what is is foreclosed by a seamless postmodern epistemology in which there is no discrepancy between belief and knowledge. Fundamentalism is emblematic of this postmodern orientation, since fundamentalists do not 'believe', they 'know'. The fundamentalists' literalism means that - ontologically at least - they are dedicated positivists. For them, the truth of religion is not to be found beyond the worldly, but in a nature that can be examined by a positivistic science - hence the apparently bizarre interest of some fundamentalists in brain science, neurology and cloning. What could be a clearer case, then, of people who have become 'dupes of their own fantasy'?

These reflections brought into focus a few issues I've been preoccupied by a great deal recently, and which came up during the course of the epic anti-pop thread on Dissensus (well, what didn't?) : namely, what is the relationship between commitment and rationalism? Can commitment be conceived of in any other way than as an irrational leap into faith ?

There were clear echoes of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in Zizek's idea of a 'counterfactual belief'. For Kierkegaard, faith must be maintained, not only when there is no evidence to support it, but also when there is evidence which actually contradicts it. But faith is only possible in conditions where God maintains his 'epistemic distance'; if God made himself completely known to Abraham, then he would no longer be required - nor even able - to have faith. That's why faith involves anxiety (the only emotion that does not deceive, according to Lacan) - as opposed to knowledge, whose correlate affect is certainty. So Kierkegaard's knight of faith would, needless to say, find themselves at odds with Zizek's fundamentalist.

Yet the standard view that Kierkegaard's leap into faith is a rejection of reason is not adequate. In part, that's because faith is about 'attitudinal' belief ('belief-in') rather than 'propositional' belief ('belief-that'). But this doesn't quite cover the radical secession from 'the factual' entailed by Zizek's sublime faith. The type of commitment involved in such a faith is defined by oppostion not to the rational, but to the empirical. In Zizek's example, Anne Frank's belief in the 'divine spark' is not a conviction based upon experience, nor one that can be refuted by experience. One of Badiou's great services is to remind us that the rationalist method is not about verifying a hypothesis with empirical evidence. The reason that mathematics is privileged in his philosophy is that it has nothing to do with the realm of the factual-empirical. The positing of axioms has a direct parallel with Acts of ethical commitment: once made, both result in strict logical entailments, but neither are grounded in anything.

Posted by mark at May 21, 2005 11:10 PM | TrackBack