Zizek And Theology Summary (7/10) — Unearned Wisdom
Zizek and Hegel
Zizek is famously a Hegelian. His interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic is that the negation (or antithesis) does not just heal the break created, but removes the frame within which the antithesis appears as ‘merely’ a break.
‘ “Negation of negation” is . . . nothing but repetition at its purest: in the first move, a certain gesture is accomplished and fails; then, in the second move, this same gesture is simply repeated.’
To understand this, Zizek gives two examples (religious, political).
The religious concerns Christ’s death. The first interpretation of this event is legalistic; there is guilt to be paid for, and by paying our debt for us, Christ redeemed us (and therefore, forever indebted us). From the participationist perspective, on the contrary, people are freed from sin not by Christ’s death as such, but by sharing in Christ’s death, by dying to sin (the way of the flesh).
These two perspectives are familiar as the traditional or ‘conservative’ view and the ‘liberal’ view of the meaning of the incarnation. As Zizek points out, the ‘liberal’ view ‘tends to deny the direct divine nature of Christ’, presenting him as more of a model to follow.
Zizek says that the participationist reading is the correct one, while the sacrificial reading ‘misses the point’ of Christ’s gesture; the only way to the participationist reading, however, is through the sacrificial one, through its inherent overcoming.
The sacrificial reading is the way Christ’s gesture appears within the very horizon that Christ wanted to leave behind, within the horizon for which we die in identifying with Christ.
Here Zizek is making one of his most characteristic dialectical moves, pointing out a mistake that is nonetheless a necessary step in arriving at the correct position. In this specific case, the legalistic approach is clearly incorrect, and in fact Zizek argues that if we stay within its frame, ‘Christ’s death cannot but appear as the ultimate assertion of the law . . . which burdens us, its subjects, with guilt, and with a debt we will never be able to repay.’
But if we skip directly to the ‘correct’ position, that position loses its punch. The true meaning of Christ’s death is not immediately the call for participation, but rather the break with the legalistic view, a break which opens up the space for participation in a new kind of social collective outside the logic of debt and repayment.
In fact, the participation perspective, properly conceived, is an embodiment of the break with the legalistic perspective. Without that persistent element of negativity, the cross loses its power.
The second example comes from For They Know Not, which is also the best single book to read for those who are interested specifically in Zizek’s position on Hegel. Citing G. K. Chesterton’s defense of the detective story, Zizek claims that law itself is actually the greatest possible crime and argues that Chesterton’s insight exactly captures the logic of the Hegelian ‘negation of negation’: First, we have the simple opposition between the position and its negation — in our case, between the positive, appeasing law, and the multitude of its particular transgressions, crimes; the ‘negation of negation’ occurs when one notices that the only true transgression, the only true negativity, is that of the law itself which changes all the ordinary criminal transgressions into an indolent positivity.
Later, he takes this logic a step further, again citing a famous Christian author, Blaise Pascal: ‘At the beginning’ of the law, there is a certain ‘outlaw,’ a certain Real of violence which coincides with the act itself of the establishment of the reign of law: the ultimate truth about the reign of law is that of a usurpation, and all classical politico-philosophical thought rests on the disavowal of this violent act of foundation.
Belief as Rationalization
Zizek at some point in his life loses faith in democracy, and that is when he turns to theology.
If someone is struggling to believe, Pascal recommends simply acting like a Christian (going to mass, kneeling down to pray) — belief will follow soon enough. This is obviously a reversal of our normal conception, where our actions are ideally supposed to be guided by our beliefs, but at the same time, it reflects everyday experience For instance, one will often find idealistic young people who for one reason or another feel they need to take mainstream corporate jobs, even though it contradicts their stated beliefs. Over time, these radicals will begin to espouse more ‘realistic’ views — their day-to-day practices at work don’t simply contradict, but will ultimately change their beliefs.
Similarly, ‘mega churches’ in the United States such as Willow Creek, which use popular music, live drama and other enticements to attract people who might otherwise find church boring, rely (consciously or unconsciously) on Pascal’s insight. Their success reflects the fact that simply by virtue of doing the bare minimum of consistently showing up for church on Sunday, even for a church service that is basically free of traditional Christian practices, people will come to identify as Christians. On the flip side, one finds a similar approach among Christians (mainly those who are theologically educated) who believe it is crucial for churches to either reintroduce or reinvigorate traditional liturgical practices. For them, Christianity has been emptied of its distinctiveness — the solution, however, is not to teach people theology directly, but to change their practices.
In that sense, the material basis of ideology (or beliefs) is not the economic system as such, but everyday habits. Althusser thought that the primary source of ideology in modern society is the school. There, students learn different types of ‘know-how’ — from science and literature to job skills to social norms. This ‘know-how’ is a way to ensure submission to the dominant system. To the subjects, this whole experience is viewed positively, as a process of acquiring a set of skills that they should dutifully perform.
Ideological beliefs serve as a series of rationalizations, masking the true nature of one’s actions. As Althusser puts it: ‘Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.’
For example, one could observe that by working hard, a worker makes their owner richer and doesn’t gain much personally, other than exhaustion. Ideology does not tell the worker the reality of the situation, but rather, that the situation is fair because ‘those who work hard are rewarded’ or ‘a strong work ethic is an important virtue.’
Even though ideology is imaginary, very few people question it. Man is ultimately an ideological animal.
So, if people know that the system is based on lies, then why do they go along with it? That is when it seems most natural to turn to psychoanalysis, the individual psyche. Even if psychoanalysis isn’t very valuable, it is clear that psychoanalysis deals with this problem. But can we apply psychoanalytic insights to society as a whole?
Zizek thinks that this is a false dichotomy (at least the Lacanian version). Psychoanalysis doesn’t deal with the individual psyche rather than the social order, but rather, the ‘interface’ between the two.
God was the big Other
Before the modern period in Europe, the ultimate big Other was none other than God — the church guided society in the name of God, the king ruled by divine right, and everyone had their proper places in the social order as allotted by God. (And why should we care how God thinks we should order society? Because he’s God!)
But in the modern period, God is no longer the privileged name for the big Other. Instead, one sees the basic structure of the big Other at work under a variety of names or at times as the unnamed but presupposed author of social rules, as when one says, ‘That’s just how it’s done.’
Even though the public space of the Western world is now for the most part secular and only a handful of conspiracy theorists believe that there really is some discrete individual ‘pulling the strings’, every one still acts as though there is some Other out there — some very big Other — who holds together the social order.
Jouissance is a French word that can best be translated by ‘enjoyment’, and its meaning overlaps both with the straightforward sense of ‘enjoyment’ and the idea of ‘enjoyment’ in terms of having the ‘enjoyment’ (free use) of another person’s property or ‘enjoying’ certain rights. However, its connotations are more intense and more specifically sexual than the English ‘enjoyment’, because it is also the word for orgasm. For this reason, in discussions of Lacan and of many other twentieth-century French thinkers, jouissance is normally left in the original French. Zizek tends to alternate between ‘jouissance’ and ‘enjoyment’, but when he uses the English term, the connotations of the French should still be understood. The ideological fantasy, then, serves as a kind of strategy for keeping jouissance, in the form of objet petit a, under control to a sufficient degree to provide the subject with some relative stability. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s saying, ‘Desire is always the desire of the other’ — the big Other teaches me how to desire. Another meaning is closely related: I always desire the other. This is because the big Other is always associated with objet petit a and acquires a kind of aura of jouissance, as is illustrated in the fascinating charisma exuded by the king or totalitarian leader. For this reason, Zizek argues that totalitarianism shows us particularly clearly that the final support of every ideology is jouissance. The big Other, therefore, issues the subject a kind of ultimatum: either submit to ideology, or be consumed by jouissance. This follows the logic of a ‘forced choice’, a concept that Zizek will return to again and again in his writings: ‘you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing’.36
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on April 30, 2022.