In 2005, Slavoj Zizek contributed an essay to a volume entitled The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The essay was called “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence.” In it, he offers what could be (or could have been) a very important corrective of Levinas’ ethical and political thought. And yet, the argument ultimately falls apart both because of, and in spite of, Hegel. Let me try to explain.
First, the genuine potential: Zizek argues, promisingly, that Levinas’ deferral of politics (i.e., institutions of justice and the countless others which they represent apart from face-to-face encounter) to a moment subsequent to ethics (i.e., the relation of responsibility which is mediated by the face-to-face encounter) is too neat. In short, phenomenologically, “the Third [the abstract, political alterity of law] is not secondary; it is always already here . . . ” (182).
But in addition to affirming the equiprimordiality of ethics and politics, Zizek corrects Levinas in another important way, by recalling Primo Levi’s repeated use of the term “faceless” to describe the Muselmaenner who have become symbolic of the powerful dehumanization wrought by the Shoah (161). There is a sense in which ethics cannot always rely on an encounter with a face that is immediately disclosive of humanity. Or, in Zizek’s words, “what if it is precisely in the guise of the ‘faceless’ face of a Muselmann that we encounter the Other’s call at its purest and most radical? . . . . What if . . . we restore to the Levinasian ‘face’ all its monstrosity: face is not a harmonious Whole of the dazzling epiphany of a ‘human face,’ face is something the glimpse of which we get when we stumble upon a grotesquely distorted face, a face in the grip of a disgusting tic or grimace, a face which, precisely, confronts us when the neighbor ‘loses his face’” (162)? One could easily read this passage in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque, in stories such as “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
And yet, Zizek seems to take a false turn, both by following Hegel too closely and by not following him enough. In the first place, Zizek, like Hegel, sublates Jewish and Christian thought into a modern philosophical narrative which reduces them to sequential, provisional, dialectically positioned stages of a historical progression of spirit (187-8). Secondly, and perhaps even more problematically, Zizek departs from the Hegelian methodological principle of “speculative identity,” which Zizek himself endorses (187), in order to posit a rootless (and ruthless) justice which is liberated from its “contingent umbilical link that renders it ‘embedded’ in a particular situation” (184). Somehow, Zizek thinks it is okay to promote a massively abstract dualism between universal justice and particularly rooted justice, which Hegel’s principle by no means allows. In short, Zizek appropriates the problematic narrative structure of Hegel, while rejecting, in one crucial instance, something which Hegel actually seems to get right: namely, that justice is necessarily embodied in and shaped by the concrete forms of community.
Ultimately, it seems one could correct Levinas in certain respects, as Zizek does, without following him along these more unsavory paths.
Another choice quote from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to re-arrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. (163)
That’s from another speech, entitled ‘Novelist and Believer.’ It’s turning out to be another one of my favorites.
And yet again, it seems a lesson theology needs no less than any other ‘religious art.’
I’m in the middle of reading Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction. As to its style, the whole book is predictably inspiring; as to its substance, it’s less consistent. (For example: the opening essay, on raising peacocks, dragged on more than I would have liked. And her essay ‘On the Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ despite the occasional gem of a paragraph, is too scattered to be really involving.) There are a few real masterpieces in here, though, that are as useful to the theological writer as they are to the novelist—at least so long as the theologian is prepared to think of what she is doing as an art form, as I think we should anyway.
My favorite selection so far (though I haven’t yet read the final part, which contains her sustained reflections on being a Catholic novelist) has been her speech on ‘Writing Short Stories.’ The bits directly about short stories are fascinating in themselves. She gives a wonderful definition of a story as “a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person” (90). She lets loose a few enjoyable rants against the reduction of stories to their themes, to abstract statements. And the essay nicely encapsulates some of her most common contentions: that fiction begins and ends with the senses, that it hinges on the intrinsically meaningful portrayal of the concrete, that it aims at a believable presentation of the real, even (maybe especially) the invisible or impossible real. I think those contentions themselves could be helpfully translated into theology or philosophy, recognizing that those disciplines quite properly do deal in abstractions. It might be that theology could be understood as the intrinsic inverse of fiction, speaking constantly of the concrete under the guise of the universal rather than speaking constantly of the universal under the guise of the absolutely concrete.
What really struck me, though, were a few brief observations at the very end of the piece. The speech was given at some kind of writers’ conference, and O’Connor had apparently been given a few of the participants’ short stories ahead of time. She finished by marking a few problems she had seen in them. First, she noted “the use of language in these stories was such that, with one exception, it would be difficult to distinguish one story from another” (102). There were clichés, she said, but not one enduring image. Second, it was impossible to tell where these stories unfolded. They could have happened anywhere in the world without changing the story. Finally, the characters functioned as siphons for ideas or particular actions; they lacked real, story-driving personality.
Again, mutatis mutandis, these are the problems in a great deal of theological and philosophical writing. In some circles, language is intentionally stripped of its evocative power and made (so we are told) completely transparent; in others, the ‘evocation’ is so commonplace and so disconnected from the unique conceptual structure as to be meaningless—the very essence of a cliché. That doesn’t count the vast majority of essays or books written without any thought of their language at all. As for context, this is probably the principle problem of theoretical writing: its necessary abstractions are treated as absolutely self-sufficient, blithely indifferent to any concrete position whatsoever. The rise of ‘contextual theologies’ of various kinds have gone some way to correcting this terrible habit, but it’s not obvious to me that they have quite cornered the relation of thought to its setting—and in any case, most theology has not learned its lesson. The idea of personality in theoretical writing is perhaps on its face the most foreign, but not too hard to understand. A concept of Augustine’s is almost always recognizable as such, as is a line from Heidegger. It’s not only that these thinkers have stamped their own historical personality on their writing, though that is certainly true; it’s that in capable hands, their ideas acquire a life and spirit of their own. Just like O’Connor’s characters, thinking becomes a matter of following the inner dynamism of an idea always just beyond grasp.