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.
I finally finished First As Tragedy, Then As Farce yesterday, having put it aside for a month once the end-of-semester whirlwhind struck. In addition to being so enjoyable to read, it always strikes me how clear Žižek is. Sometimes he does play a bit loosely with certain terms (I had a conversation last night about what he really means by “the state” in this book, which I still don’t understand), and his work is piled high with technical allusions the reader is to some degree expected to pick up on. But a reader can get on perfectly well without a crisp definition of the terms and without the allusions, still understanding the point under discussion. At least at the micro-level.
That’s the thing: Žižek is an amazingly clear, very plain-spoken, common-sense kind of writer, in the context of a single page or a continuous few pages. (All the more impressive given how, in a common-sense way, he’s able to directly confront common sense.) It’s partly the effortlessness of reading that makes him so enjoyable to read. But taken as wholes, especially in the more popular pieces like this one, his books are extremely erratic. It takes quite a bit of work—quite a bit more work than other, lesser writers—to really make sense of what the point has been once you’ve made it to the last page. There’s definitely a “main point” to this book, about the constitutive instability of capitalism and the renewed possibility of communism as an alternative, but its bulk is made up of other tangential points—about immigration in France, Obama’s victory, superhero films, Ayn Rand, the relation of Haiti to Hegel…
I don’t mean this as a criticism, God knows. These “tangents” are absolutely central to his success as a writer and public theorist. In fact, I’m tempted to think that this style—the frenetic unraveling of little points, happily digressive, all in service of one big, less determinate point (communists, come home!)—should, on the contrary, be directly advocated. I wonder for myself, at least, if I’ve not become too concerned with crafting an essay around a single large-scale syllogism—a kind of thinking that doesn’t come naturally to most, and which is therefore intrinsically less interesting, less capable of holding a reader’s attention.
I’ve been more open, lately, in confessing my deep appreciation for Žižek around the department, and as I do I commonly find myself saying how enjoyable he is to read, how funny, how provocative… and then feeling guilty, like I’ve done him a disservice. I have to backtrack and say that of course he’s an eminently serious thinker, too, doing “important work” on Hegel and Schelling and Fichte.
Still, I’ve just started First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, and again I’m struck first by how straightforwardly pleasurable it is to read his work. The prose is crisp and energetic, his meaning is clear, his arguments are insightful, and he’s consistently entertaining at the same time. And that’s an extremely difficult confluence of features to achieve. Judging from the academic work that I read from day-to-day, it’s nearly impossible.
Žižek really is exemplary here. At some relatively early point in their training, aspiring scholars should try to read as much well written, lively, entertaining academic work as possible, to prove to ourselves that this isn’t an exercise in dullness.
To go along with this interview with John Milbank just posted at the Immanent Frame, be sure to check out Cyril O’Regan’s short review essay on The Monstrosity of Christ, “Žižek and Milbank and the Hegelian Death of God,” in the most recent issue of Modern Theology (April 2010, 26.2). Written in O’Regan’s typical kaleidoscoping style, and so not the easiest thing to read, it’s nonetheless a really interesting take on the issues at stake in that debate.