Monday, October 29, 2007

Love and Law, Collected Posts

Part 1: Elaborating on Love and Law
Part 2: The Law/Desire Connection
Part 3: Feminine Non-All
Part 4: Excess and Mortification
Part 5: Two Views on Redemption
Part 6: "As If"
Part 7: Parallax Gap and Conclusion

Love and Law, Part 7: A Shift in Perspective, and Conclusion

Part 6

Summary of Part 6: When you are working within the confines of the pleasure principle, a life gripped by love and one crushed by law look about the same.

Žižek makes it quite clear that the perspectivism of the parallax gap is operative here. The life gripped by love and the life crushed by the insane superego appear identical from the outside. Both are lives that appear to be utterly without freedom; what separates them is not a change in content or actions but a shift in perspective. The way love appears as identical to Law can only be surmounted by a shift in the subject themselves - one must enter the life of the spirit for themselves.

The non-all logic of love is hinted at in the New Testament again in 1 Corinthians. This is the passage that speaks of love as being only for incomplete beings; it is only incomplete beings with incomplete knowledge that have access to knowledge. However, this passage also speaks of love as still existing even when knowledge is complete. This, again, must be read in terms of the non-all. Žižek says “love is not an exception to the All of knowledge, but precisely that ‘nothing’ which makes incomplete even the complete series/field of knowledge.”

It is not difficult to see the application of this to the symbolic realm of the Law. One that lives the life of the spirit is submersed in the Law, living out the “as if” demands. The one that is living life instead of existing in a state of living death is encompassed by a rigid series of responsibilities and demands upon conduct; however, they are not totalized by the Law. The subject never becomes an automaton, engaged in compulsive repetition of acts, trying to answer the question of what the Other wants.

It is here that we may return to the Kantian relationship between morality and freedom cited above. Kant argues that the ability to legislate laws is the pre-condition of freedom, and vice verse. Freedom cannot exist without a certain relationship to the symbolic Law. Freedom without Law will never have access to jouissance. What is freedom but the ability to be thrown into one’s desire, which is held by the Law and guided by the nothing of love? Law, desire, love and freedom all presuppose one another, though, as Paul would say, “the greatest of these is love.”

By way of conclusion, it is clearly the way of love that steers a path through the dismal responses to the harsh dialectic of Law and desire. The path of the libertine attempts to deny Law itself, and discovers that pleasure descends into mechanistic repetition. It leads to a life incapable of investment in any particular object and the abandonment of desire. The alternate path of the ascetic finds the superego growing immeasurably, swallowing up any last hint of agency or life. One’s desire is constantly foreclosed, deferred, mutilated. Both of these paths lead to the Pauline existential positions of death. Love, however, leaves the subject under the Law, but the lack of totalization leads to the ability to make choices and decisions as a subject. Learning to love is, then, a vital part of fulfilling the psychoanalytic maxim of wo es wor, soll ich werden. Love is an element of that which allows me to appear where it was, for my desire to grow where it was once crushed by the desire of the other.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Love and Law, Part 6: "As If"

Part 5

Summary of Part 5: In the participatory reading of Christ's death, the presence of the Law is in fact increased when under a regime of love. To see how this is possible, we must again look at the feminine "non-all" logic.

The critical passage to begin with in Paul is the “as if” passage from 1 Corinthians. Paul exhorts the Christians to live in a manner in which they have dealings with the world in a kind of suspended manner; the Christians are those who “rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as if they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as if they had no dealings with it.” One should live “as if” one were under the Law, “as if” one were subjected to a series of great demands, despite not being so. This living one’s life under a series of great demands shows that Pauline love cannot simply be reduced to a suspension of the Law. The Law remains active; the symbolic order is not somehow abolished. What is accomplished in this life of living “as if” is that the Law is no longer a totalizing force sustained by its own transgressions, its own constitutive exceptions. The Law otherwise achieves a totalizing dominance, complete with its own transgressions. It is the introduction of love that prevents this totalization, this bear subjection to the Law.

When one lives in “the way of the spirit,” the transgression of the Law ceases because the Law is suspended. In other words, one lives with sin. Here the issue of the constitutive exception becomes vital. Any structure is of course maintained by one; if sin disappears from the subject’s life, what place then does the Law have?

What this suspension of Law - to live “as if” one were not under the Law - amounts to is an engaged position, the (non-biological) life, a “fully subjectivized, positive yes!” to [one’s] own life.” It is this exuberant affirmation of life that throws one into the grip of the “as if” demands, the laws without their constitutive exceptions. Žižek says this best in his description of falling passionately in love:

“Love shatters our daily life as a heavy duty whose performance demands heavy sacrifices on the level of the ‘pleasure of principle’ - how many things must a man renounce? ‘Freedom,’ drinks with friends, card evenings.”

The duty of love - the fidelity to desire - will always be the harshest series of demands possible upon one’s life. St. Paul found himself condemned to death in a Roman prison, Antigone was buried alive in a tomb, and Slavoj Žižek does not play cards with friends. The Law does not disappear; what love does is “suspend the obscene libidinal investment on account of which the Law generates / solicits its own transgressions.” 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 a “love” that feels threatened by the rule of Law. 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. Enjoy your not enjoying. Obey the law as if you were not obeying it - obey from love.

This setting of love against Law that Paul appears to be 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.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Love and Law, Part 5: Two Views on Redemption

Part 4

Summary of Part 4: The Jewish law is typically seen as harsh and repressive, while Christian love and grace are set against this. Is this an adequate reading of redemption?

There are two basic interpretations of how the redemption made possible by Christ’s death operates. The first interpretation is sacrificial, and the second is participatory. We are redeemed either because Christ pays out debt to God, or because we participate in his death - we “die to sin” in Christ.

The problem with the sacrificial reading is that it leads up right back to the dominance of the Law. Christ pays a debt for us, thus simply leading us into a gift economy. Christ gives us a gift, and we must pay him back with what Spinoza might have called "the basest servitude." With this debt simply transferred to the Crucified rather than God, we are placed in a position in which we must continuously ask of Christ “what do you want from me?” Christ takes the position of the infinite superego; the infinite debt of sin can never be paid. Christ’s love becomes a mask for this infinite debt, this hyperbolic Law. The sacrificial reading ends with the same impasse as the attempt to fully accede to the Law: domination and repression.

Žižek expands on the difficulties with the sacrificial reading with a second biblical passage, offering context for the first. The passage ends with a rhetorical question, “and why should we not say ‘Let us do evil so that good may come!’” The suggestion St. Paul is intending to refute here is that, because God’s grace and forgiveness is a good thing, we should engage in ever more and greater sins so that more forgiveness will take place. What this does, however, is place God into the position of the pervert: God’s desire to act as our saviour becomes an imperative to sin and transgress. God’s actions become the source of our pleasure. This still ties pleasure to transgression, however, and the morbid guilt that arises from this remains.

It is the participatory reading that offers a move away from the oppressive superego. According to Žižek, it is Paul’s “way of the Spirit” that offers a way out of the dialectic of Law and desire. It is a matter of rejecting the subjective position of “death” and choosing the alternate position of “life.” The key to this choice lies in another Biblical passage from 1 Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” This is a surprising shift away from the usual moralistic tone of religion; the Law finds itself suspended - by what? - love. In the sacrificial reading of the crucifixion, love becomes a supplement for the Law in the form in the infinite superego. In the participatory reading, however, “the Law which regulates and prohibits certain acts is suspended.” The Christian ceases to be bound by the Law, and their affirmations and negations are guided by love, not Law. Put another way, the Christian undergoes the second death, entering the realm of ate. This love beyond Law is no longer the transgressive desire that is aroused by the Law, but rather itself a fidelity (which, as Alain Badiou points out, is itself a term of love) to desire. The superego ceases to shout “do your duty!” and das Ding ceases to drag us into doing what we hate. When one is guided by love, one’s duty is their desire.

The Law, being constituted by the symbolic realm, obviously does not somehow disappear. In fact, the Law’s presence may actually grow or intensify under this regime of love. To see how, we must return to The Puppet and the Dwarf and it’s exploitation of the feminine non-all logic.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Love and Law, Part 4: Excess and Mortification

Part 3

Summary of Part 3: In order to escape the sin/desire deadlock, an element of excess needs to be found in life. Zizek looks to Christ as a figure of this excessive life.

In order to frame his argument, Žižek offers us a portrait of a confused world that, in attempting to deny the “Law,” merely finds itself denying excess. This is a world that is trapped on the safe side of the Law. In other words, it is a world immersed in the pleasure principle. A world that denies excess cannot help but exist in a kind of living death, the Pauline existential position of flesh. Žižek offers an example from physics called the Higgs field as an illustration. The Higgs field is a condition under which less energy is expended to exist as something rather than dissipate into nothing. This is a concept reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “man would rather will nothingness than not will.” The Higgs field is a fine metaphor for the difference between the death drive and the nirvana principle. The nirvana principle seeks the lowest tension; it is easier to live a sickly life than to burn out like Achilles on the battlefield. It is not life that is opposed by this nirvana principle, by this submission to the pleasure principle - such an opposition would require far too much effort. What is opposed by the man locked into the Law and governed by the pleasure principle is the excess of life.

It is a world that combines pleasure with constraint. Everything is permitted so long as its dangerous element is removed. Anything that would require risk or commitment is eliminated; hence we have the goal of revolution without revolution, coffee without caffeine, and the “libertine” insistence on the legalization of a weak drug like marijuana.

In this world, the only possible extreme is a negative one: absolute evil. This is the central place that the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags hold in the twentieth century; they stand as warnings for all those that would posit any sort of rigid goals. Any attempts to agree on a positive good are held in suspicion as attempts to wield “power” over others, like a variation on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s warning that revolution inevitably leads to the gulag. The “good,” then, can never be anything other than a defense against “evil.” Positive good can never be anything other than a position of moderation.

The (alleged) denial of law (which is only an affirmation of hedonistic pleasure) is bound up with the denial of love, jouissance and excess. A fine example of this can be found in Antigone: Antigone’s sister, Ismene. After Antigone informs her of Creon’s orders against burying Polyneices, and of her intent to violate this order,

Ismene exclaims:

"Oh no! Think carefully, my sister.
[. . . .]
And we must obey this order, even if it hurts us more.
As for me, I will say to those beneath the earth
This prayer: 'Forgive me, I am held back by force.'
And I’ll obey the men in charge. My mind
Will never aim too high, too far.”

Ismene’s advice contains four elements. The first is the demand to “think carefully.” This advice can obviously many different things, but it is all too easy for “careful thought” to simply emerge as the infinite deferral of action. Ismene, by opening her speech with this phrase, indicates her intent to calculate out the possible goods and harms that may result from action. Secondly, Ismene says that they must obey Creon, “even if it hurts.” What is this advice if not to choose a sickly, painful life over the even greater pain of rushing beyond the pleasure principle? Ismene would rather endure the constant, nagging, low level suffering and guilt of having betrayed her brother rather than face the potentially swift death of violating the law. Thirdly, Ismene claims that external forces are controlling or limiting her. She is “held back by force.” She is deferring to the Other, to the Law, in the attempt to avoid pain. Finally, she says that she will always limit her goals to the possible, later going on to say that “it’s the highest wrong to chase after what’s impossible.” A positive good, in a world that denies excess, is nothing other than the impossible or the insane.

Against this mortification of life, Žižek sets the figure of Christ on the cross. Christ’s death, of course, is an attempt to deal with the Law and sin (the Thing). The Jewish tradition of the law is typically seen as oppressive and legalistic, while Christian love and grace are set against this. The question remains as to whether or not this is an adequate reading of the mechanics of Christian redemption.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Love and Law, Part 3: Feminine Non-All

Part 2

Summary of Part 2: The Law crushes life, and only something like madness can escape the law and affirm life.

A partial attempt to escape that Law/madness battle is something like libertinism, the “path of uninhibited jouissance.” This amounts to the denial of the Law, the move toward a life of pure pleasure without restraint. This collapses, however, when the necessity of the Law for pleasure is remember. Sin - or pleasure - needs the Law. If one denies the Law, one has no access to anything but the most banal enjoyment, like Zarathustra’s little pleasure of the day and the little pleasure of the night.

Another attempt to escape the cycle of guilt and pleasure is the full acceptance of the Law. In other words, this is the choice to live one’s life in a radically moral way. The fault here, as Lacan points out in his discussion of Freud, is that whoever “attempts to submit to the moral Law sees the demands of his superego grow increasingly meticulous and increasingly cruel.” The Law, when one willingly enters into its economy, can only grow. The positive order of being attempts to overtake all excess, creating a world in which every action is carefully formed to continuously answer the question of what the Law wants. The life thrown into the Law is spent asking the Law, which is the Other, “what do you want from me?” Because there is no specific answer offered, the subject must search for more and more emphatic ways of answering this question for themselves.

So here we have three separate yet related problems for the relationship between Law and desire. Under Law, desire can only be expressed in a hyperbolic way, in a rush into the repulsive real where morbid guilt awaits. The question for both Lacan and Žižek revolves around the possibility of moving beyond this impasse. Lacan asks if the ethics of psychoanalysis leaves “us clinging to that dialectic.” The search is for a relationship to desire beyond the Law, and Žižek locates this in a non-all logic of love.

In The Puppet and the Dwarf, Žižek introduces his reading of non-all logic by dealing with a potential problem for Lacan’s formulations of sexuation. Žižek pits Bruce Fink’s and Suzanne Bernard’s reading of this against each other. In Zizek’s portrayal, Fink argues that feminine jouissance is both ineffable and inextricably bound up with speech. Fink appears willing to allow this sort of contradiction or incompletion in Lacan’s work. This seems like a reasonable enough position to take, considering Lacan’s general views on lack and knowledge. However, Žižek insists that this cannot be written off as an innocent contradiction, as this problem lays at the crux of sexual difference itself. To solve this problem, Žižek turns to the work of Suzanne Bernard in the same volume.

The logic of feminine non-all does not mean there is some mysterious part of a woman that remains outside the symbolic. Rather, there is a “simple” lack of totalization. All totalization takes place through its constitutive exception, in much the same way that the Law is sustained by transgression. Here, the argument is made that the woman is in the symbolic without exception. There is nothing in a woman that is not immersed in the phallus. So the woman is completely symbolized, but because there is no exception, she cannot be said to be totalized by the symbolic. There must be some excess here, a nothing that is a something. It will be by following up on this logic of non-all with a reading of Christianity universality that Žižek tackles the Law and desire problem.

Part of the solution involves the idea that something can be immersed by not totalized because there is an excess; in the case of the feminine non-all subjection to the Law, there is the jouissance of the other. Being in the symbolic without any sort of exception produces its own excess, formulated by Lacan as S(A). It is down the road of excess that we need to travel if this question of Law and desire is to be answered. Žižek will follow St. Paul in looking to Christian agape and Christ as a figure of excessive (eternal) life for clues to the solution.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Love and Law, Part 2: The Law/Desire Connection

Part 1

Summary of Part 1: The Law creates/sustains Desire/sin.

There are three specific, related problems in this situation (of Law sustaining Desire/sin). The first problem is that the relationship of Law and desire means our desire only ever appears as a death drive, as a movement beyond the pleasure principle. As Lacan says, it is only because of the Law that “sin . . . takes on an excessive, hyperbolic character.” Law only ever allows enjoyment to take place as a transgression.

Lacan also traces the oppressiveness of the Law back to the logic of the murder of the great man. This mythic origin has the “all-powerful, half animal creature of the great horde” being killed by his sons. The sons kill the father in the attempt to achieve their desire; they find, however, that the guilt of this murder imposes profound guilt. Lacan says that “every act of jouissance gives rise to something that is inscribed in the book of debts of the Law.” The Law is an economy of debts and payments that can never be superceded; one is forever caught in a cycle of guilt and pleasure.

In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek offers a second problem for this intertwined relationship of Law and desire. He lays out St. Paul’s ideas of life and death as “existential positions,” that is, not as biological states but as ways of carrying out life. Žižek here equates the Law with the positive order of being; the mechanical, extant, non-excessive life. This is living one’s life in a type of living death. Life, on the other hand, exists under divine grace - a sort of universalism. Death is equated with Law, Life is equated with love. The existential position of Life is that which is excessive, capable of moving beyond the Law and the positive order of being.

The very introduction of the Law, then, creates the Life/Death dichotomy. In other words, the subject is torn between life and death, between mechanical, conscious subjection to the Law and an unconscious desire for transgression. The unconscious becomes the only affirmation of life; it might be the case that Bataille’s exuberant, repulsive festivities are the only expression of freedom in such a world.

Lurking Outside the Tomb With a Shotgun

(Or, the Second Problem With the New Atheists)

I seek God, I seek God. Wither is God? I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now?. . . . Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. . . . .

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment.

I come too early. My time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. . . . This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.

What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?

- Nietzsche, rushing in where even Spinoza feared to tread.

If one has a look at Richard Dawkins’ homepage, he gleefully lists all the books written by Christians rising to challenge himself and the other New Atheists. The battle is joined, and he is confident in being on the winning side. He considers his arguments against the existence of God to be powerful ones. The Christians, for their part, have marshaled every ounce of reason and rhetoric at their disposal to oppose these atheists. Best sellers will be written, and millions of dollars will be earned on both sides.

The argument is an old one, of course. Cataloguing reasons to believe or disbelieve in God’s existence is probably the second oldest profession. It is a merry-go-round that will continue as long as the deed remains distant from us.

Part of the glory of 20th century philosophy was the attempt to think the unthought. Heidegger, Derrida and others tracked down the various merry-go-rounds that the west had been playing on for the last few millennia, and tried to smash them. The idea was to think without metaphysics, or, in this context, to think without God. This does not mean to think without truth, or conviction, or to think arbitrarily. Rather, the search was for a way to dwell in a world in which God is dead as opposed to non-existent.

As usual, Slavoj Zizek says it well:

“. . . we are never in a position directly to choose between theism and atheism, since the choice as such is already located in the field of belief. ‘Atheism’ (in the sense of deciding not to believe in God) is a miserable, pathetic stance of those who long for God but cannot find him (or who ‘rebel against God’). A true atheist does not choose atheism: for him, the question itself is irrelevant - this is the stance of a truly atheistic subject.

(Am I suggesting a cheap psychoanalysis of Dawkins et al? Their daddies didn’t love them, so they’re searching for/rebelling against God? Absolutely not. The idea that our families – and our past as such – dominate what we are today is a cheap escape from anxiety. Yes, we have habits, and those habits started somewhere. That is not the same as creating what amounts to an idol of the past.)

What the New Atheists are doing is playing the same old game, the same old dogmatic metaphysical ramblings that Kant first struck a hammer blow against. It is time to move on, time to leave behind dogmatic metaphysics (in a nutshell, dogmatic metaphysics is the search for the unconditioned). "God is dead" is not equivalent to the statement "God does not exist." It is not so much a statement about whether or not God exists as a thing, but rather a statement about God's irrelevance. What Dawkins et al repeatedly show is that the death of God is an event still far from their ears. They are no more aware that God is dead than any Christian.

1st Excursus: What exactly is the death of God? This is not a question of statistics, of the empirical facts of Europe's atheism and North America's religiosity. Belief in God continues to exist, and will probably never go away. What the death of God means is the death of the possibility of any unquestionable highest value; all of us are caught up in an endless reflexivity. Everything is questionable, which is not to say everything is being questioned. Everything is a matter of calculation, of pragmatic value. Everything exists only to be used, to be placed in reserve.

2nd Excursus: Certainly one of the primary expressions of this nihilism is Christian apologetics. The Christian apologetic par excellence is presuppositionalism, in which the twin nihilist forces of calculation and (obscene, unacknowledged) doubt find expression. Only a closeted nihilist finds himself so utterly bankrupt that he must place all value, power and knowledge in an external object.

God and Jesus are dead. Dawkins doesn't know it, and will probably spend the rest of his life shadow boxing specters. Good for them. It's time to move on.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Elaborating on Love and Law

In a culture in which love and sex have become synonymous, the need for questioning the concept of love becomes ever greater. To equate love with sex is to make love an act, something engaged in only under specific circumstances. However, a more traditional concept of love that centres on an emotional state is no more adequate; emotional states come and go. If love is to have some place in our lives, it must be at home in the subject as subject. Love must find a place in the subject that is not affect, emotion or action. If love is to be rooted in subjectivity, at least in Lacanian terms, it must have a relationship to the Borromean knot structure of the subject.

To describe love as an active force rather than a passive trait, we must have an idea of how love affects the tri-part structure. How does love interact with the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real? This is a broad question that one could say Lacan arguably struggled with his entire career. The question will have to be narrowed, then. What relationship does love have to desire, and that which institutes desire, the Law? This is one of Lacan’s questions in his seminar concerning ethics, and it is the driving question of Slavoj Zizek’s book The Puppet and the Dwarf. Love does not eliminate the Law, or mitigate the Law. Neither does it guide the Law. Love, here, suspends the Law. This suspension is not the Bataillan festival, the madness that overtakes a social group and sees social norms disintegrate. This suspension has a very specific meaning: love suspends the Law’s ability to produce transgression and morbid guilt. The subject of love continues to find themselves under the Law, but with a lurking nothing, an element that prevents the excess that does nothing but foul life.

As Kant opens his Critique of Practical Reason, a footnote appears tucked off onto the margin of the page. Here, Kant claims that freedom is the essence of morality, and that morality is the condition that makes us aware of freedom. This mutually conditional relation cannot help but bring to mind the relationship Lacan develops between the Law and the Thing; “I can only know of the Thing by means of the Law.” This explicit use of St. Paul highlights the fact that the Law produces its own transgressions. Our desire is aroused by the Law; to understand how this works a brief description of the logic of castration is necessary. Žižek, in The Puppet and the Dwarf, offers a useful explanation of this idea. He begins by critiquing the usual interpretation of the fort/da story. The boy’s spool is not the compensation for the mother’s absence, but rather her presence. The boy is working out his anxiety over her overbearing, infinitely encroaching desire, her jouissance. The mother’s desire crowds out the boy’s own desire. The boy’s solution is, in effect, the acting out of his own castration. The insistence that he is incapable of fulfilling his mother’s desire is what provides the necessary space for his own desire. The boy’s desire, then, is only sustainable by means of the institution of the Law. The boy has to assert his own incompleteness, his own split subjectivity.

This version of the fort/da game is a picture of how the Law sustains desire. If the boy was not subject to the Law, he would be forever suffocated by his mother. This arousal of desire by the Law is specifically read into the Biblical text Romans 7:8-18 by both Lacan and Žižek. In this text, St. Paul argues that “sin, seizing and opportunity in the commandment, produces in me all kinds of covetousness.” In other words, the Law produces its own transgressions. The Law is an enticement, an enticement to an object that is always beyond it. The very fact that this object is forbidden only makes it more attractive.