Yesterday I had the good fortune of seeing a talk by Slavoj Zizek, celebrated professor of Philosophy/English/Cultural studies. The talk was brilliant and clear, instantiating a height of nihilism which is no doubt neccesary. All of his arguments were completely spot on, it’s just that a few of his horizons are set in such a way as he reaches the wrong conclusions. I don’t often make serious blog posts anymore, but in this one I will outline a few points of his argument that I think many people can benefit from.
1) The Neighbour/The Other/Language as devisive.
Firstly, he opposes Levinas’ theorization of the other for being one sided and thus on its own terms the most grotesque violence against the other. He argued that the politicization of our society is as “the fear of the neighbour” – the neighbor is the homely face under which lurks an evil, (uncanny) spectre. Fear of the neighbor is related to proximity – the global village, and communication. More communication, more epistemic proximity between societies which are traditionally seperated by a gulf of a thousand miles, means more conflict between them (his prime example is the Mohammed cartoons). Alianation is sometimes useful – alianation maintains the abyssmal gulf between the self and the other. Habermas, others, argue language is the essential structural tool of unity – it is through language that we can understand each other, and even in conflict, conflict through language presupposes that we comprehend each other to some extent. Zizek flips this: Language is perhaps not the greatest tool of unity, but the greatest divider. It’s because of language that it is easier to communicate with a Mongolian’s dog than with the Mongolian person. Language makes it possible for us to be much more divided and in conflict than animals.
2) Violence (subjective/objective)
Violence is normally understood only as subjective violence – individuals breaking the peace, assaulting, breaking, smashing, graffiti-izing, setting cars on fire. However, to properly understand any instance of subjective violence it is neccesary to understand the huge amount of “objective” violence going on all the time to ensure the maintenance of the ‘zero level’ (I would say, “the peace”).
3) tolerance/ intolerance
Why are so many political problems today spun as problems of intolerance? Huntington’s book “the clash of civilzations” is close to Fukayama’s – the end of history is an endless clash of civlizations because when the individual is decidedly the unit of spirit, the only unifying force strong enough to maintain conflicts is cultural. Culture is the velvet curtain which replaces the iron curtain of ideology. In liberalism, the cultural sphere is the private sphere (a reversal – of course the cultural sphere is traditionally public). (quote from Zizek: “Culture is literally transsubstantiated”). Standard paradox: tolerance is only possible in individualistic democratic countries, justifies the invasion of oppressive societies. Not actually a paradox, there are limits of tolerance (KKK?). This is the wrong “cultural studies” road.
a) Even if a universality is false (i.e. human rights), it has actuality as a discourse and can function as emancipatory. The very criticism of human rights is conditioned on there being a (admitantly flawed) discourse on human rights at all. Example: French Revolution begat the haiten revolution.
b)Marxist (and Hegelian) hermenutics (study of interpretation) are at their best not when subverting apparent universals, revealing them as particular, but rather the opposite – when revealing the apparently particular as universal. Capitalism is brutally universal, but experienced as perticular. One’s desires to grow wealthy and purchase consumer goods are experienced as perticular, but make up par excellence a universal structure that is cultureless. You yourself are rarely aware of the world historical dimension of every particular act. (Of course! Methodological individualism prevents recognition of any Weltgeist!)
3)Dominant ecology of fear
Fear is mostly fake, in a perticular sense. Those who predict the catastrophe themselves hope it won’t happen. Disconnect between “knowing” and belief. We know that global warming is a real problem, but the more we know it even as certainty, the more we can’t believe it, the more we hope we’ll be alright. Some argue this is because we are too scientific and that our common sense is unable to accept global warming because it becomes set in opposition it scientific cognition (looking at graphs versus staring out the window at a mountain). Thus, some argue that we need to return to an ecological naturalism relation to the world. Zizek: Wrong – we must instead unlearn the most basic coordinates of the life world, we must grow up and realize we have no where to which to return.
4) No way back
What does this “no where to return to” mean? Nature (me: physis) has no natural cyclical state. Sure, it has a cycle it has been following for several hundred thousand years, but there is nothing essential and permanent about this cycle (Platonic bias – permanence). We are natural beings, and nature has adjusted herself to the pollution which we spew. To stop polluting would cause dire catastrophe (cites scientific paper). Should we do what we can to lower our pollution? Of course, but we should not think that we are causing a catastrophe and that nature is devoid of catastrphe herself. We run off oil – oil is fossil fuel – the result of a horrible catastrophe – we run our society off past catastrophe. We need to cut off our epistemic embedeness is a false conception of ecology and cut ourselves loose into the abyss, MORE philosophical madness. Example: “I despise the dust that forms me and speaks to you”. The destruction of the world is a small cosmic event,although it may be a large event on the scale of the solar system.
[I don’t agree with this part of Zizek’s analysis entirely, partially because I think he’s wrong about capitalism being culture-less. My argument for this is grounded on an epochal history of being, whereas Zizek only seems to recognize one epoch and thus finds salvation in the very heights of nihilism and cold calculation]
5) False Urgency
Today Bill Gates in interviews will say that it doesn’t matter how many computers he can sell if world hunger remains such a huge problem. Immediate refuge in actions, thought condemned as not doing anything. But immediate action (i.e. sending used T shirts to third world countries undermines attempts at starting their own factories) to “help” with world poverty often does nothing to help the problem. Thus, withdrawal, to “Learn, Learn, and Learn”- Lenin, is perhaps not such a bad option. There is a need to oppose the immediate demand to action because it does not allow time for the thought which would keep such action from merely reinforcing the structure which allows for the maintenance of so much objective violence. Charity as the last moment of capitalist accomadation is taking on a purely economic function (maintain status quo). “Only through patient theoretical work, something will emerge. Knowledge we need more than ever.”