Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Zizek, faces, and the 'suprasensible'

"Between the man of faith and the man of science, there is little difference: both guard against destructive chance and reconstitute the requirements of order; both appeal to a constant which they pray to or theorize about; both are men of accomodation and of unity for whom the other and the same are complementary. Speaking, writing, calculating, they are eternal conservers, conservers of eternity, always in quest of something stable, and pronouncing the word 'ontological' with confident fervor."

Blanchot,_The Writing of the Disaster_, 90

Slavoj Zizek bugs almost everyone. Frenetic, irrisponsible, albeit occasionally entertaining, he has been known to fabricate entire scenes from films to fit his theory. The cliché phrase, "fiercely unapologetic" was invented just for him. He plays the angry radical and the "master" - as if nobody else had ever bothered to read Hegel and Lacan for themselves. His style is one of habitual overstatement and polemic. Although he hasn't begun to read Derrida, he drags - intentionally, perhaps - the invective misnomers, "deconstructionism" and "deconstructionist" through the mud at every chance. Derrida, to my knowledge, has never mentioned Zizek (and most likely never will), but then Derrida only recently stopped replying to Habermas in sparse footnotes. (To be fair, Zizek might actually BE the only one who reads Lacan.)

But Zizek sometimes makes you work for your distance. And as wickedly addictive as polemics sometimes are, writing on Zizek can help re-establish this distance so one can sleep. Zizek refuses to separate the most ruthless violence (that done by the postmodern neo-Nazi) from the culture of 'liberal tolerance' and 'diversity.' Radical fanaticism goes hand in hand with neo-liberal democracy. Sort of the Trotsky and Wolfowitz syndrome, although that is doing Wolfowitz a favor. The obscene pleasure to be found in films such as _The Passion of the Christ_ and _Elephant_ (after Columbine) temporarily, addictively, disrupts and quavers the symbolic:

"One should link Rancière's notion of post-politics to the notion of excessive, non-functional cruelty as a feature of contemporary life, proposed by Balibar: a cruelty whose manifestations range from 'fundamentalist' racist and /or religious slaughter to the 'senseless' outbursts of violence by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call Id-Evil, a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reason...The neo-Nazi skinhead's ethnic violence is not the 'return of the repressed' of the liberal multiculturalist tolerance, but directly generated by it, its own concealed true face."

Zizek,_The Ticklish Subject_, 201-205

In _The Fragile Absolute_ (perhaps interesting to consider in relation to Derrida's _Gift of Death_), Zizek argues for a neo-Marxist agape - the Christian legacy being "too precious to be left to the New-Age freaks." But Zizek wants to gloss it every way, and his thoroughly psychoanalytic critique of this legacy is anything but convincing. In particular I am troubled by his reading of the word "suprasensible" - how can this be anything but fervently ontological?

"The distinction between APPEARANCE and the postmodern notion of SIMULACRUM as no longer clearly distinguishable from the Real is crucial here. The political as the domain of appearance...has nothing in common with the postmodern notion that we are entering the era of universalized simulacra in which reality itself becomes indistinguishable from its simulated double. The nostalgic longing for the authentic experience of being lost in the deluge of simulacra (detectable in Virilio), as well as the postmodern assertion of the Brave New World of universalized simulacra as the sign that we are finally getting rid of the metaphysical obsession with authentic Being (detectable in Vattimo), both miss the distinction between simulacra and appearance: what gets lost in today's 'plague of simulations' is not the firm, true, non-simulated Real, but appearance itself...The old conservative motto of 'keeping up appearances' thus takes a new twist today: it no longer stands for the 'wisdom' according to which it is better not to disturb the rules of social etiquette too much, since social chaos might ensue. Today, the effort to 'keep up appearances' stands, rather, for the effort to maintain the properly political space against the onslaught of the postmodern all-embracing social body, with its multitude of particular identities.
This is also how one has to read Hegel's famous dictum from his _Phenomenology_: 'the Suprasensible is appearance qua appearance'. In a sentimental answer to a child asking him what God's face is like, a priest answers that whenever the child encounters a human face irradiating benevolence and goodness, whoever this face belongs to, he catches a glimpse of His face...The truth of this sentimental platitude is that the Suprasensible (God's face) is discernible as a momentary, fleeting appearance, the 'grimace' of an earthly face. It is THIS dimension of 'appearance' transubstantiating a piece of reality into something which, for a brief moment, irradiates the suprasensible Eternity that is missing in the logic of the simulacrum: in the simulacrum, which becomes indistinguishable from the Real, everything is here, and no other, transcendent dimension effectively 'appears' in/through it. Here we are back at the Kantian problematic of the sublime: in Kant's famous reading of the enthusiasm evoked by the French Revolution in the enlightened public around Europe, the revolutionary events functioned as a sign through which the dimension of trans-phenomenal Freedom, of a free society, APPEARED. 'Appearance' is thus not simply the domain of phenomena, but those 'magic moments' in which another, noumenal dimension momentarily 'appears' in ('shines through') some empirical/contingent phenomenon...In short, one should distinguish here between two couples of opposites whicha re absolutely not to be confused int eh single opposition of appearance verus reality: the couple of reality and its simulacrum, and the couple of the Real and appearance. The Real is a grimace of reality: say, a disgustingly contorted face in which the Real of a deadly rage transpires/appears..."

_The Fragile Absolute_, 195-196

Computer generated faces have no 'suprasensibility' then? Do they still have an 'aura'? Might the narrow definition of "suprasensible" Zizek seems to be pushing fall closer - to borrow from Derrida - to a "faith without religion" or an "openness to the other AS OTHER?" Zizek pretends to disagree with Derrida while he merely borrows from him; one of many crucial differences being a fervent insistence, on Zizek's part, that everything be reinscribed within an idealized split between "the Symbolic and the Real." In the end, maybe there are good reasons why many folks - and not only Derrida - are so resistant to the tradition of Lacan.

Finally, as recent posts at The Weblog and Charlotte Street have taken up, such formulations may themselves be something of an impatient, Zizekian maneuver. Perhaps it is better - as Foucault once said - just to put the polemicist's book down.


Anonymous said...

"Zizek is not a radical?"

Matt said...

Also, this was circulated recently:

Date: Thu, 03 Jun 2004 13:04:29 -0400
Subject: Re: [postanarchism] zizek on abu ghraib (& the Blame Game)

This short essay is definitely an example of the sometime brilliance of Zizek (though anti-dialecticians plug your ears) - for to imply that group torture and humiliation is exactly what makes America what it is - to categorize American ideology by its pure antithesis and by its ever-swelling underbelly of sadistic mirth - this is pulling quite the Hegelian u-turn! And all talks aside on the radicality of Zizek, his positions inside or outside of anarchy, etc etc, his trenchant tendancy towards turning the pistol around on American politico-ideology is definitely a step worth taking.

Having only an outsider's view on my natal homeland, these days, I am especially struck by the American national phenomenon of finger-pointing, and would love to hear your thoughts on this. Perhaps continuing along the thread of psychoanalytical hermeneutics, we can identify the American reflex of 'blame searching' as a sort of über-paranoia: in other words, after having fixated all projections of national ethics onto the bizarrely heterogenous (and constantly mobile) sphere of American society - (one Senator, for example, referring to the Iraq tortures, said that he couldn't believe those soldiers would do such a thing, after having come from "the schools, the churches and the families we have here in the US") - at every eruption of dissemblance, the immediate reaction is to search out its cause within a seperate strata of the same groaning beast - when, in actuality, these eruptions of dissemblance are no more than the hushed other-ness of the ethical projection itself - the fault is not, as we are made to believe, in the recepient but the projection.

Also, moving away from the psychoanalytical strain, this desire to 'root out all dissemblers' is nothing other than a means of distancing oneself (ourselves) from the reality of the event. With the instance of the tortures in Iraq, for example, everyone, according to the media (heh heh), before even considering the events themselves, sought to establish a hierarchy of blame! The very instant that this became public fodder, the politicians started calling for resignations, the talk show hosts started crying conspiracy, and the military weeping ignorance. Everyone, as in nearly every national humiliation (and there have been enough these days), turned AWAY from the actual events, and in doing so AWAY from themselves, in order to hurl the blame out onto the so conveniently absent other. In this sense, then, our national instinct for blame is, as opposed to the sublimation reflex, a means of reassurance: the idea that it cannot be 'Me', it cannot even be 'Him', but it must be that Other-one, over there, behind the bushes and the stacks of systematically ignored reports. The only way to maintain the specious fragility of America-Land-of-the-Free is by way of a ruthless and inexorable denial of anything that threatens its validity (the other Hegel).


"Non pas séparés, ni divisés: inaccessible et, dans l'inaccessible, sous un rapport infini." -Blanchot

In a message dated 5/31/2004 5:32:20 PM Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

>Culture >May 21, 2004
>What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib
>By Slavoj Zizek

Matt said...

A more thoughtful analysis of Zizek's recent turn toward using the name, "Lenin" can be found here: Everything you wanted to know about Lenin and (sadly) weren't afraid to ask ZizekAnd then finally (last one, I promise), there was this from last summer:

From owner-postanarchism@lists.village.Virginia.EDU Tue Jul 15 05:49:54 2003
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2003 02:49:05 -0700 (PDT)
From: "J.M. Adams" <>
Subject: [postanarchism] Zizek Sells Out to Abercrombie and Fitch

"The Examined Life: Enjoy Your Chinos!"
Joshua Glenn, 7/6/2003, Boston Globe

A few weeks ago, the trendy youth retailer Abercrombie
& Fitch was slapped with a lawsuit alleging that the
company discriminates against minority ''brand
representatives'' (i.e., salespersons) who don't
embody the brand's ''classic American'' look. Some may
be surprised, then, to learn that the racy photos in
the forthcoming ''Back to School 2003'' issue of the
Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly are garnished with
running analysis from a man who hardly embodies
''classic American'' ideas: the left-wing Slovenian
philosopher, cultural critic, and theoretical omnivore
Slavoj Zizek.

In his contribution to A&F's magazine-catalog hybrid,
Zizek does not claim to discover any latent
philosophical truths in Bruce Weber's photographs of
young, mostly white men and women slipping out of
pre-rumpled polo shirts and cargo shorts. Discussing a
shot in which a topless blonde turns her face to the
sun while her two male companions undress, the author
of ''Enjoy Your Symptom!'' restricts himself to
musing, ''This now of the peaceful satisfaction is to
her infinitely preferable to the prospect of

So where's the theory?

Reached via telephone in Ljubljana, Zizek told Ideas,
''You've got me there. I spent literally 10 minutes on
this assignment, just free-associating. I was in
theoretical despair!''

But Zizek bristled at the suggestion that there was
anything unseemly about an internationally renowned
intellectual writing copy for a clothing catalog. ''If
I were asked to choose between doing things like this
to earn money and becoming fully employed as an
American academic, kissing [EXPLETIVE] to get a
tenured post,'' he growled, ''I would with pleasure
choose writing for such journals!''

This story ran on page H2 of the Boston Globe on

"The world is the natural setting of and field for all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not 'inhabit' only 'the inner man' or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself."

— Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945


Anonymous said...

further link dumped - a "Neo Lacanien-Zizek" blog/resource