On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

On Zizek’s plagiarism

A former student wrote to ask what I thought of the recent evidence of plagiarism in an essay by Zizek. I replied that Zizek’s own explanation of the incident, which can be found here among many other places, struck me as plausible — indeed, I’d add now that it isn’t hugely different from what traditional academics might ask a research assistant to do for them.

Overall, I’d call this unintentional plagiarism due to laziness, rather than actually trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as his own. If he turned in the essay for my class, I’d give him the chance to rewrite.

“Focus is life”: The mysticism of Five-Hour Energy

Five-Hour Energy is one of those products that exists near the back of all of our cultural consciousnesses, at the boundary between “real” products and obvious scams. We might map out that space as bounded on the more legitimate-seeming side by anti-oxidants and on the more scam-like side by the Atkins diet. I’m inclined to push it more toward the Atkins end of things. The round number seems very suspicious to me, for instance — how can they possibly know, amid all the wide variety in human physiology, that the energy boost will last that precise length of time? Further, how can such a product possibly fail to cause cancer?

Their advertising has generally fallen within certain predictable bounds. Do you feel too tired to work out? Take Five-Hour Energy. Do you feel worn out in the afternoons at work? Take Five-Hour Energy to avoid That 2:30 Feeling. The most adventurous they got was a self-mocking campaign in which an adventuring young man mastered dozens of skills within the five-hour window, with a little time to spare.

Lately, though, their ads have taken on a more mystical tone (unfortunately these ads don’t seem to be available on YouTube). Instead of giving you energy or motivation, they’re providing you with focus. They describe focus in terms that would not be unfamiliar to readers of The Cloud of Unknowing, concluding with the enthusiastic declaration: “Focus is life!”

It’s disconcerting to be told that an energy drink is the pathway to a meaningful, centered life, but here we are. It reminds me on one level of Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” whereby the spirituality of the Eastern world is instrumentalized to help workers cope with the stress of their jobs. While his focus on Buddhism is probably disproportionate, the basic point remains — think of what yoga has become in the US, for instance.

What’s misleading in Zizek’s stance, however, is the implication that supplementing work with spirituality is something new. Agamben’s description of the monastic workday in The Highest Poverty reminds us that there has always been a “zone of indistinction” between work and spirituality in the Christian tradition (and I assume the monks suffering from accedia would have appreciated a bottle or two of Five-Hour Energy). Leaving aside the obvious references to the “Protestant ethic,” we find the same overlap in Marxism, where productive labor is put forth as “the chief end of man.”

In other words, the problem with Five-Hour Energy’s claim that an energy drink meant to help you through the workday is also a mystical experience isn’t that it debases spirituality — it’s that they’re fundamentally on the right track. That really is how our culture thinks about work, even in its most radical self-critique. It’s a Hegelian-Zizekian “infinite judgment,” like “the Spirit is a bone” — “Marxism is a Five-Hour Energy commercial.”

Zizek’s pedagogy: Or, The id of the academic mainstream

For decades, Zizek has been expressing his disdain for teaching. Now, for whatever reason, people are choosing to get worked up about it on Twitter. What’s striking to me is not merely the fact that Zizek’s views on this matter were already well-known — rather, it’s abundantly obvious that his claims are only slight exaggerations of widespread attitudes in academia.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

I’ve seen a couple theories on Twitter that Zizek is attempting to subvert the teaching profession from within, but if so, he’s remarkably dedicated to the bit — by all reports, he really does neglect his students totally. We don’t need to posit some kind of conscious intention on his part to use his approach as a starting point for reflection, though. It does seem as though most universities do not highly value teaching. They show this through their standards for advancement and through their staffing practices, which treat the majority of teaching faculty as totally disposable. They rely on people’s passion and/or guilt to generate acceptable pedagogical results. Zizek is in a unique position as an academic who can walk away from any faculty position and be totally fine, and that enables him to take the “offer meant to be refused” and treat teaching as a pointless formality compared to his real work. In other words, as ethically objectionable as we might find Zizek’s pedagogical practices, the real problem is the system that makes his approach plausible.

On Žižek and Identity Politics

This is by Amaryah Shaye and was originally posted at Women In Theology. Amaryah will be contributing to our upcoming book event on Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity.

In a recent Facebook discussion I got drawn into regarding Zizek and identity politics, I started by arguing for an understanding of identity politics that is not synonymous with the politics of representation and recognition that desire more POC or queer people or women on television or as CEOs or politicians and presidents. That is, since it started, identity politics has had a radical critique of capitalism, a notion of building wide coalitions among various marginalized groups, and a desire for intersectional analysis that troubled the ideas that there was one source of oppression (class or sex or race, etc). I noted that I was not trying to position identity politics as a field of thought that is uncritiquable, but defend it as an important critical intervention in thought that gave an imaginative space for folks to decenter white men’s work as hallowed and sacred while also allowing people to develop critiques of identity politics. That is, identity politics, by and large, has been far more self-reflexive than the philosophical and theological projects of white men and can’t just be dismissed as a ridiculous project even if it gets things wrong.

Another commentor who self-identified as a reader of Zizek and agreed with Z’s critiques of identity politics responded that they DID want to argue that identity politics is a ridiculous project which “doesn’t mean it’s not important, or even emancipatory.” This stuck with me because it clarified for me why I did want to defend identity politics.

Dismissals of identity politics as ridiculous even as they are “important” or “emancipatory” strikes me as a kind of intellectual doublespeak that highlights the misunderstanding that grounds the dismissal in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

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Consider the possibility

Is this Left Forum panel a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have determined that conspiracy-based thinking is just the kind of obscurantism that thrives on the political right. The panelists seem determined to make a mockery of the left by going beyond the proverbial “circular firing squad” and accusing those they disagree with of being active collaborators with the enemy — effectively staging a Stalinist show trial that will confirm the worst suspicions of the persuadable mainstream. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Conspiracy Theory Industry to unhinged pseudonymous bloggers who now only talk to each other, having been blocked by all reasonable people. It is they who laid the groundwork for putting forth the model of 9/11 Truthers and Birthers as the pinnacle of hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

Agamben, theology, and me

The other day, Stephen Keating asked me what attracted me to Agamben initially, and I had to confess that at first it was simply a desire to see what the big deal was about Homo Sacer. I found the book pretty baffling, and out of stubbornness (and with some nudging from Ted Jennings), I read further to see if I could make sense of things — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve found many books baffling, and I didn’t wind up learning to read in a foreign language in order to keep up with their authors’ work, nor have I translated them, etc. The key, I think, is my strange disciplinary position. I do a lot with philosophy and really enjoy it — and yet I very often feel like I’m stuck in an “expositional” mode, as though I can’t fully inhabit the discourse in the way necessary to do creative work with it. It’s different with theology. There I feel like a genuine internal critic, and I feel confident that I can make creative contributions to the discourse.

From this perspective, Agamben is appealling to me because he occupies a similar position with regard to the Christian tradition. His readings of the theological tradition are much more interesting and daring than the majority of confessional theologians’ — particularly in the Paul book and in his bold rewriting of the entire history of Christian thought in The Kingdom and the Glory. Despite his immersion, he is still able to approach the tradition with genuine freedom, and despite his critical stance, he is able to approach the tradition with the initial sympathy needed to detect what is at stake in theologians’ often recondite debates. Agamben can make the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem as though it has urgent contemporary consequences, and yet that importance emphatically does not at all imply that we should become Christians.

This basic resonance makes Agamben at once a deep influence on my way of thinking and the philosopher that I feel most able to critique. And this weird stance toward philosophy and theology may explain my position on other philosophers. For instance, I have long had a gut feeling that delving deeper into Badiou’s work would not be the best use of my time, despite his obvious relevance for my work on Zizek — and I suspect that may finally be because his reading of Paul is deeply reactionary and anti-Jewish. Similarly, my interest in Zizek has waned as his theological work has reached a kind of dead end, where he can keep repeating the same basic point but seems unable to develop it further or fully integrate it into his system.

An interview over Zizek

As promised, below is the English transcript of my forthcoming interview over Zizek and Theology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Notes on the death drive

Yesterday in the DAAD seminar led by Eric Santner that I’ve been participating in, we talked about Triebe und Triebschicksale and Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Prof. Santner emphasized the fact that the concept of “drive” is more the name of a problem than a solution and the fact that the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself. As we turned to the (bizarre!) sections of the text that deal with speculative cellular biology, I shared that I had found it somehow funny that Freud pictured the first living being coming into existence and experiencing it as a huge imposition: “This sucks! I want to go back to being primordial soup!” But once you start down that road, it seems as though there’s no reason not to push the point further. Perhaps consistent matter resented its condition and wanted to go back to being indeterminate quarks, for instance. Then Prof. Santner had a brilliant and hilarious insight: the idea that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could be put forward not as an occasion of wonder, but as a complaint.

It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome. Zizek of course puts this refusal forward as the only possible ground of political change, and it seems that there is justification in Freud’s text insofar as he associates the death drive with the Wiederholungszwang or repetition compulsion that pushes neurotic patients to relive the painful experience that has (mis)shaped them — but it’s all in order ultimately to refuse that particular vicious cycle and shape themselves differently.

I wonder if we can make a connection to the Heideggerian being-toward-death here. What drives Heidegger to investigate the phenomenon of death, at least in my reading, is not so much that death is the “end” and therefore “completion” of a human life, but rather that death as such is a potentiality that always necessarily remains potential, that can never be actualized. After all, once “my” death occurs, “I” no longer exist. The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with. Being-toward-death is his way of articulating and grasping that potentiality so as to get a complete grasp of Dasein’s peculiar mode of being (as actuality and potentiality). Just as with Freud’s death drive, the emphasis on death as such may be partially misleading or distracting, but there’s a moment of truth insofar as “death” names a radical negativity in human life. For both Freud and Heidegger, then, it would be this negativity that gives us access to the potentiality to do something other than our automatic daily routines of neurosis or everydayness.

Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Read the rest of this entry »

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