Friday, September 21, 2007

The First Problem with the New Atheists

Benedictus Spinoza can arguably be seen as one of the fore-runners of today's materialism. His mechanistic universe in which God is identifiable with all that is has proven to be something of a philosophical Rorschach test. He has worn the guise of a pantheist, an atheist, and a renegade Jew. Whichever of these interpretations is right, he wielded one of the most stubbornly powerful intellects the western world has ever seen. One cannot be a powerful thinker without being a powerful creator; he smashed accepted doctrines and created new ones with an almost unique intensity. Between his Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he ground traditional religious views beneath his heel. For all this, some French theologian or another called him the "most dangerous man of the century."

Without trying to be too romantic about this, those who can think new things and hold to truths are always foes of the status quo. The people that found new ways of thinking and create new concepts always, of course, stand in excess of the status quo. Atheism has commonly enough been the stance of these excessive figures. Atheism was a view that set one upon an outsider's life; a life that was not necessarily dangerous, but comforts of various kinds were sacrificed. See the almost-atheists like Hobbes and Kant, or the virulent atheists like Nietzsche and Russell.

Things are different now. We live in a Liberal! Tolerant! society. The status quo allows a great deal more latitude in terms of thought. This is not to say that atheism is now a garden-variety view; it is obviously still unpopular and held in suspicion - see the recent polls about Americans disliking atheists. But the world has changed enough that what was once only a position held by dedicated and serious thinkers is now a label worn by rebels without causes.

Vulgar Atheism is now the cheapest form of rebellion there is. All you have to do is say "I'm an atheist" and the eyes of everyone around you will go wide. It's the philosophical equivalent of wearing a leather jacket or getting nipple rings. And just like leather and oddly-placed metal, vulgar atheism is an adolescent trapping.

Adolescence is obviously a necessary stage, but it just as obviously needs to be superseded. Vulgar atheism should never be anything other than a cocoon stage. There's a huge intellectual world out there. It is one thing to sit on your ass well within the confines of the status quo (i.e., traditional religion) and ignore the call of thinking; it is another to set your hand to the plowshare of thought and not plow anything.

Dawkins et al write polemical screeds, assaulting religion. As such, I don't have a problem with this. I'm not knocking them for being atheists. My complaint is that they've picked a fight with a group of people that have traversed their own version of adolescent anxiety. Various religions traditions have their own brand of serious thought and conviction. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have all produced serious work.

Most of that serious work is in the past, of course. Since Luther, the only Christian to be a serious philosopher was Kierkegaard. This does not detract from the monumental achievements of Augustine, Aquinas and Eckhart. Christians are still perfectly capable of retrieving these past possibilities based upon their own resoluteness.

The New Atheists have no such past possibilities, and seem to be unaware of their own historicity. They can scrape at science to find philosophical, political and ethical convictions, but in the end, all the force of their conviction comes purely from negation - the negation of religion. The problem here is that any negation of a thing remains in that same game as the thing itself. Negating religion can never be anything other than a religious act. Dawkins is the flip side of Falwell.

In this interview with Alain Badiou, Badiou discusses the tendency of some Christian thinkers to appropriate his own resolutely atheistic notion of truth and change, and expresses what I think is an important idea for both atheists and Christians engaged in an emancipatory project.

I accept the discussion because I think that in the present world the great and fundamental problem is not between the religious way and the non-religious way. Certainly, it is, finally, very important, but it is not our principal problem. We know that today there is religious conviction that takes the way of sacrifice, religious conviction in the way of enjoyment, and religious conviction in a third way. So we can see that the distinction between religious conviction and non-religious conviction does not determine the topology of our world. We are not in the same position as in previous centuries. Today, religious conviction is important, but it is not the central problem. The world cannot be divided into the religious and the non-religious. So the discussion is, for me, a positive discussion.

What separates the New Atheists from both the properly atheistic subject and the Christian interpolated by love beyond law is the traversal of anxiety, of the dismissal of the need to negate and reject, in favour of the affirmation of both thought and deed.

Part 6: Love Beyond Law and Conclusion

Part 6

What shakes out of Zizek’s critique of Agamben’s book on Paul The Time That Remains is that the idea of Pauline love as the founding suspension of the law. The critical passage in Paul is the “as if” passage - “buy as if you had no possessions, deal with the world as if you had no dealings with it. It’s not about staying what you are, accepting existing power relations, but rather the position of a thoroughly engaged fighter who ignores things not relavent to the struggle. It is an engaged position of struggle; on pg. 112 it’s described as “an uncanny interpellation beyond ideological interpolation.” It is a life seized by love. The gap between mere pleasure and jouissance is most obvious when a complacent life is shaken and seized by love; the perfomance of love demands sacrifice and duty on the level of the pleasure of principle. Enjoy your not enjoying. Obey the law as if you were not obeying it - obey from love. Thus what Paul attempts to suspend is not so much the law itself, but rather the constituative exceptions - the law’s obscene underside. As Zizek says, “we should suspend the obscene libidinal investment in the law, the investment on account of which the law generates / solicits its own transgressions.”

This uncanny interpellation that Paul is striving for and using to critique the older Jewish position is, however, exactly how the Jewish law already works. The Jewish law doesn’t have a superego backing it up; because it does not rely on an obscene underside, it is the excess of the law itself that address us, not the law.

This, as Zizek says, is the ultimate alternative. The opposition between law and love is internal to law itself - the gap between the specific, determinate, positive laws and the infinite superego. Love and the excessive superego appear identical from within the frame of the law. Put another way, when you’re working within the confines of the pleasure principle, a life gripped by love and one crushed by law look about the same.

Zizek goes on to talk about the famous love passage from Corinthians 13. There are two seemingly contradictory statements: the first is that even when one has all knowledge, there is love. The second is that love is only for incomplete beings.

The only way to resolve the deadlock is to fall back on Lacan’s feminine formula of sexuation. As Zizek says on page 115, “even when it is all (complete, with no exception) the field of knowledge remains, in a way, non-all, incomplete - love is not an exception to the all of knowledge, but precisely that nothing which makes incomplete even the complete series/field of knowledge. Whether I am with or without knowledge, if I have love, I am a nothing that is aware of itself; made rich through the very awareness of its lack. So, as Zizek goes on to say, “only a lack, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love, therefore, is that incompleteness is, in a way, higher than completion.”

Like the co-dependancy of incompleteness and love obeys the feminine formula, the co-dependancy of law and transgression obey the masculine logic. Transgression is the very constituative exception that sustains the law; in the end, this means that love is not just beyond the law, but actually articulates itself as, as Zizek says, “the stance of total immersion in the law. ‘Not all of the subject is within the figure of legal subjection’ equals “there is nothing in the subject which escapes its legal subjection.’” Nothing in the subject escapes the law, but the subject is not totalized by the law - in the same way that the woman is not totalized by the symbolic.

It is sin - transgression, resistance to the law - that makes the law appear to be a foreign power crushing the subject. So the problem is not that the law does not contain enough love - but rather that it contains too much love. I am unable to recognize myself in the law insofar as I cling to the immediacy of love that feels threatened by the rule of law.

So, what it comes down to, is finding a way to relate to the law that itself “unplugs” us from immediate social surroundings; one that acts as an ideological interpollation and gives desire the distance that it needs. The Christian suspension of the law remains is a love that remains tied to the Jewish law that creates a distance from the social order, while the pagan suspension of the law is only aimless transgression.

In conclusion and to sum up, Zizek's project is the search for a law without the obscene underside. The law's obscene underside works like this: think about what happens when you forbid a kid to do something. "Don't eat that cookie." Or, telling an adult "don't fornicate." The effect in both cases is the same: the person actually hears "don't. . . . FORNICATE! FORNICATE!" Forbidden fruit and all that.

Yet the answer is not to dispel all law and say "If you, as a responsible adult, wish to consent to having any form of sex in private, you may do so..." The destruction of the law is, in the end, the destruction of all enjoyment. When the law becomes "you may," life becomes deadened and pathetic.

Love is the force that suspends the "you may," and replaces it with a law that address us directly, without the the obscene underside. It unplugs us from our constructed social surroundings and builds us a new world, one with its own law and duty, the only kind of duty without the obscene underside: the duty that only says "your duty is. . . . DO YOUR DUTY!"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Puppet/Dwarf 5: Excessive Life and the Last Man

Part 4

It is that image of Christ’s offer of eternal life, aka excessive life, being connected with law, love and suffering that Zizek takes up in the next chapter. He sets up a difference between the Freudian death drive and the nirvana principle by using an example from physics... the gist of which is, the nirvana principle seeks a state of the lowest tension; it requires less energy to be a sedentary something rather than an expended nothing. The nirvana principle is shackled to the pleasure principle; it is the attitude of the survivalist last man. The death drive is the tension that constantly pushes past the pleasure principle. The nirvana principle avoids extremes and risks; opposed to this is the excess of life. The mortification of life isn’t an opposition to life as such - that would take too much effort. What the mortified, survivalist last man opposes is the excess of life.

The problem is that life is inherently excessive. It either comes out in jouissance or in the revenge of sick passion. On page 95, Zizek describes it well; he says “the post metaphysical survivalist stance of the last man ends up in an anemic spectacle of life dragging on as its own shadow.”

Basically, it is a world that combines pleasure with restraint. Everything is permitted so long as it is deprived of its dangerous element - or of anything that would require a commitment. So, we have “revolution without revolution” and decaffeinated coffee. Like we’ve said a few times in this class already, the superego injunction in our culture is to enjoy; the law is chased away.

Within this horizon, the only absolute possible is a negative one — absolute evil. Which I think is a pretty solid argument; it would be nigh on impossible to get a lot of agreement on a positive good, but it would be just as hard to find someone to disagree about the evil of the holocaust.

In this world that denies law, both love and jouissance are also denied. So what should we do? Perhaps only a god can save us now.

So lets look at how Jesus saves us! There are two interpretations of how Christ’s death deals with sin. The sacrificial concept, and the participatory concept. Either we are redeemed because of Christ’s actions, or because of our identification with him.

In the first approach, debts are canceled and paid - not by us, though, which leaves us in permanent debt. So how does the second way work? I think the best way to frame this answer is to contrast it with something on page 6. Zizek makes a few snide remarks about Levinisian/Derridian styles of religion. When asked about God, the intellectual diverts the question into a heavily theoretical answer - they set up a distance between themselves and their belief. The skeptical attitude of deconstruction always relies on an other who “really believes.”

So, how does that relate to participatory redemption? What Christianity does is that it sets up Christ as our subject supposed to believe. We ourselves don’t believe, but we identify with Christ, who does.... except Christ himself doubted on the cross. So, on a deeper level, Christ is maybe the subject supposed not to believe. Instead of doubting, and perpetually holding all things at a distance, we can transpose our doubt onto the other, thus regaining the ability to believe. The true identification with Christ, then, is to participate in disbelief.

I wonder if the postmoderns are Zizek’s subjects supposed not to believe?

In the calculative, sacrificial reading of the crucifixion, Christ’s death remains within the horizon of the law - the law becomes an unconditional, rampant superego. Love becomes the mask of an infinite law, a law that no longer imposes specific orders. The problem is how to pass from this hyperbolic law to actual love - ie a love beyond the law and the pleasure principle. If such a thing is even possible.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Puppet/Dwarf Part 4: The Singular Univeral and God's Self-Alienation

Part 3

What is change for Zizek if not politics proper? Well, more specifically, the excess of the system. Zizek uses set theory language to describe this: there are people whose multiple presence is not properly presented in the one of the state. There are two themes connected to politics to bring out here. Violence, which will require a bit of a throwback to ch. 2, and universality, which will provide a segue into religion and love.

In ch. 2, Zizek contrasts Buddhist violence against Christian/revolutionary violence. Buddhist violence is totally de-subjectified; that is, the act and the actor are collapsed into each other. Inner peace is connected to violence; it is also the ultimate goal.

Christianity and revolutionary violence, on the other hand, is the empty set, the excessive element that violently causes change. Buddhist violence exists in a state of conservative, maintained, Buddha eye state, revolutionary violence is a traumatic eruption of the real. The other function of this revolutionary set is that of the singular universal. On pg. 65 this is described as “a singular that appears as the stand in for the universal, destabilizing the natural functional order of relations in the social body.”

The singular universal is, it seems, and I might be completely wrong on this, the appearance or specific form of the struggle for concrete universality. Abstract universality has to appear first - a notion that, like the name suggests, is totally without specific content. Concrete universality splits universality from within, just like the real, the excess, the swerve. Universality, through this split, is reduced to one of its particular elements - and stops being abstract. It enters its own frame. I almost want to guess that in Lacanian terms this would be the master signifier entering its own signifying chain.

Put another way, as Zizek does on pg. 108, “Universality in a political sense is the introduction of a social indivisible remainder that embodies concrete universality.”

Zizek finds both this idea of the split in the identical and the singular universal in the figure of Christ on the cross saying, “father, why have you forsaken me?” This question indicates a split in God himself.

In the sense that the real is both the thing and that which prevents access to the thing, but more precisely the shift from that first idea to the second, the Christian experience is, as Zizek says on pg. 78, “the very radical separation of man from God that unites us with God, since, in the figure of Christ, God is thoroughly seperated from himself - thus the point is not to overcome the gap that seperates us from God, but to take not of how this gap is internal to God himself.”

Christ here has the position of “man without properties.” He isn’t a sublime object, an object raised to the dignity of the thing, but the thing itself; more precisely, the thing is the gap that makes him not fully human.

So Christ - with no distinctive features and therefore no place in society - is a singular universal. “And why should we not take the risk here of referring to Nietzsche”– well... unless just to contrast with the last man?

But Christ as this excess, this split - this is what sets him up as the dividing line between the old and the new testaments. Christ is the culmination of the logic of sacrifice; himself standing for the extreme sacrifice, for the self-relating exchange in which we no longer pay God, but God pays himself for us, thus involving us in infinite debt.

So here we have a link to Nietzsche that I do understand. Nietzsche connects the excess of life to suffering; Christ connects eternal life with the suffering of the cross. Christian redemption isn’t the undoing of the fall, but its repetition. Identifying with the doubt and split in Christ and God. It was the fall that instituted sin - but also the law - and also love. The fall wasn’t a simple contingent eruption; it was the forced choice of Adam. The fall brought in freedom, sin, law, and love.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Puppet/Dwarf Part 3: The Absolute Perspective

Part 2

So reality has breaks in it; breaks produced by language; otherwise known as enigmas. Every signifying system recognizes these breaks in one way or another; enigmatic terms are used. Enigmatic terms are signifiers that indicate the excess in a purely formal, empty way. They are the stand-ins, the empty sets of an given system.

It is these breaks, these excesses, these swerves, that affect the normal functioning of perception. Zizek offers an example based on an anthropological study of a native tribe called Winnebago. The tribe is divided into two groups. One group describes the village buildings as being in two concentric circles; the other sees one circle, but a circle that is broken by a clear dividing line. The difference in their perceptions of the ground plan indicates a fundamental antagonism; the wealthier members see two continuous circles, while the poorer members see a clear split. This break in the community - the real - here is not the physical arrangement of the buildings, but the “traumatic core” of the social antagonism that distorts the tribe members view of the actual arrangement.” Put another way, the real is the swerve that distorts their perception.

The real here is doing double duty. It is not only the thing to which access is not possible, it is itself the obstacle that prevents the access. In other words, the breaks in the symbolic are not like Kantian antinomies - problems built into the structure of reason that cannot be resolved. Zizek's example is the tension between the individual and society; which comes first? Does the individual subject pre-exist, or does society? It is not that this is an unresolvable antinomy — this tension is itself one of the fundamental features of society.

This idea of the split, or the break, also informs a reading of Nietzsche’s ideas of truth. Borrowing from Zupancic, Zizek points out that in Beyond Good and Evil, there are two seemingly opposed views of truth. Truth is either a terrifying force, a blinding Platonic sun, or, truth is radically perspectival.

Is this a contradiction, or is there a third way? Well Zizek wouldn’t be a Hegelian if he couldn’t find one. Of course everything is not just the interplay of appearances; there is a real - this real, however, is not the inaccessible or horrible thing, but rather the gap that prevents our access to it, the rock of the antagonism that distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. So truth isn’t the “thing in itself,” but rather the gap itself - for example, the social antagonism of the village. Truth is the perspectival distortion.

When it comes to perspectival truth, Zizek wants to read Nietzsche avec Lenin. True knowledge is possible, but only from an interested standpoint. Truth, as Badiou would say, always involves a decision. One must always make a decision to approach the real.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a dig at Bataille, so we shouldn’t let that go. There are two ways to approach the real. One is the limit experience; if you get to closed, you’ll be burned. Again, this is the passion for the real; the violence that peels back the layers of everyday life.

But there is, also, the real that we actually have to pass through - and in a manner of speaking, always already have. The example of this approach that Zizek gives is the connection between the death drive and creative sublimation. The excess, the void, can be a source of change and creativity. Perhaps also known as an evental site.

So, if we are going to briefly characterize the real before seeing how Zizek and Zupancic search for it in politics, religion and love, we’d have a list like this: the split in the identical, the excess in the system, the object of desire, the obstacle that produces multiple perspectives, and the traumatic kernel that can produce change.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Puppet/Dwarf Part 2: Gaps in the Symbolic

Part 1

We shouldn’t be looking for the real laying behind the appearance - because as Alenka Zupancic says, the idea that there is something behind the appearance is itself the deception of appearance. The real appears in the split of the minimal difference. And the real shouldn’t be seen as a horrible, unbearable thing laying behind the symbolic. Zizek suggests that maybe the “ultimate veil concealing the real is the very notion of the horrible thing” itself. The real doesn’t elude symbolization; it trips it up.

This idea of the real being behind the veil of the symbolic is a favourite target for critics of Lacan; the charge is that erecting of the barrier between the real and the symbolic is itself a symbolic act. Zizek says this criticism can be cleared up by a discussion of the feminine logic of non-all found in Lacan's 20th seminar (SXX). In the commentary “Reading SXX” Bruce Fink brings up a potential contradiction in SXX. Lacan sets up women’s jouissance as ineffable, as being beyond speech. However, he also apparently identifies women’s jouissance with the jouissance of speech, the enjoyment that is inherant to the act of speaking.

Fink is willing to write this off as a small problem; Zizek isn’t. He sees this as a potentially crippling problem for Lacan’s formulas of sexuation. Zizek finds the answer to this problem in an essay by Suzanne Barnard. She finds a way to sublate the two. The feminine non-all does not mean there is a mysterious part of a woman outside the symbolic, but a simple absence of totalization. All totalization takes place through its constitutive exception; in the feminine libidinal economy, there is no outside, no exception to the phallic function. The woman is in fact in the symbolic without exception; women’s jouissance has both speech and silence. It’s this idea that one can be immersed in something - ie, the law, but not be totalized by it, that will come back later. What all that means for the real, however, is that the real “is not external to the symbolic; the real is the symbolic itself in the modality of non-all, lacking an exception.”

So the real is an effect of language; what this means, according to Zizek, is that language isn’t referential, it doesn’t designate reality — it digs a whole in it. To look at the world with purely empirical eyes is actually something of an impoverishment. To look at an other in a purely empirical way is one thing; to name thing; to engage in language use with them, enables me to see an abyss beyond them, where object a lies.

Zizek really moves away from the real as a simple register of the subject; he uses it as a model for ontology as such. Kant is taken to task for discovering these gaps in reality, aka the gaps in the symbolic, and for trying to cover them over with an inaccessible noumenal world. Freud does the same; he discovers that something lies beyond the pleasure principle, and tries to cover over this by setting up Thanatos and Eros as cosmic principles, there-by reestablishing the harmonious order. What is beyond the pleasure principle becomes rational and explainable.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Slavoj Zizek's The Puppet and the Dwarf: Intro

This past semester, I studied a fair bit of psychoanalysis. One of the more fascinating things I came across in those readings was Jacques Lacan's and Slavoj Zizek's appropriation of religious ideas, especially the idea of the relationship between the law and sin. Zizek in particular is fascinated by Paul, and along with a few other contemporary theorists look to Paul for critical and revolutionary potential. The Puppet and the Dwarf is a key text for the current wave of "post secular" thinking, and it's a fine piece of philosophy.

This is another oral presentation, and I'm posting it without editing it. So yeah, it's sloppy, but I'm swamped with work at the moment.

Zizek describes the 20th century as a time of the passion for the real, one of Lacan's "registers of the subject." Georges Bataille is the paradigm example here; he describes sacrifice as an attempt to destroy the “thingness” in the victim; Zizek reads this as my attempt to destroy the other to get to their real kernel.

The attempt to destroy someone to get to their real kernel is the movement of jouissance. Through symbolic castration, the overwhelming jouissance of the other is sublated into phallic jouissance - which is jouissance under the condition of unfulfillable desire. It’s from this framework that Zizek (and Lacan in SX) re-read the fort-da story. Usually it is seen as the kid mastering the mother’s absence and presence; Zizek takes the toy, the spool the kid tosses and reels in, as object a - that which the mother sees in the kid and will destroy him to get to it. This seems to be suggesting that the boy is acting out his own symbolic castration.

In other for my desire to flourish, there needs to be a space between myself and the other. Desire cannot function without prohibition and distance, a gap between object and object cause. To move beyond this impasse, Zizek sets up an extended discussion or re-examination of the real.

So, again, the 20th century as a time of passion for the real. Shattering enjoyment opposed to everyday life; the two are incompatible. Bataille goes so far as to base his theory of religion upon this sacred/secular split; the passion for the real is about the violence and excess required to peel back - and purify - the layers of normal life.

Now, this route of purification is only one way to approach the real. There is also subtraction; that which is subtracted from the One of the state. Zizek says that “subtraction starts from the void, from the reduction of all determinate content, and then tries to establish a minimal difference between this void and an element that functions as its stand-in.” According to Zupancic, minimal difference is a split at the core of the same. The classic logical axiom “A is A” implies a minimal difference - A as subject is not quite the same as A as predicate.

So the subtractive approach to the real is to identify the element of the state that is minimally different from the void. It's Ranciere that Zizek cites, but we’ve of course already come across this idea in Badiou - that which falls outside the state of the situation is an eruption of the real. Or a potential eruption, anyways.

It is this concept of minimal different that Zizek says is the shift from Kant to Hegel. Kant takes the appearance and has something - the nounema - lay behind it. The non-conceptual escapes the conceptual. Hegel, on the other hand, sees non-conceptual reality emerge because notional development is caught in an inconsistency. Multiple perspectives don’t arise because of the transcendent thing behind them; the thing is nothing but an ontologization of the inconsistency between appearances.

In Lacanian terms, the real is the result of the gaps in the symbolic. It took me a while to realize that the gaps in the symbolic exist, then, because of the minimal difference within the identical.