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.

No comments: