Thursday, November 18, 2010

Slavoj Zizek's On Belief: A Review, Part I

I have no idea how I managed to miss Žižek's On Belief when it first came out. Now, however, I have finally had a chance to read this book by one of the greatest philosophers of out time (actually, the greatest, in my opinion) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, Žižek wouldn't be true to himself if he didn't frame this book as yet another failing effort to rescue at least some sad remnants of the Russian Revolution as a genuine transformative and hopeful event. In On Belief, he does this through a very desperate "Stalin - bad, Lenin - good" sort of argument. Of course, anybody who has even the most superficial knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution realizes that such an argument is non-viable. No amount of quotes from Kant, Hegel and Lacan can dispel the historical reality of Stalin being one of the 4 people who were the closest to Lenin at every step of the way both before and after the revolution. No kind of philosophical casuistry can deny the fact that Stalin was the most faithful  and logical, albeit quite plodding, follower of Lenin. It would be great if Žižek would quit flogging the dead horse of the Russian Revolution and realize that the stench the dead horse's corpse is producing only makes it fit for a speedy burial. Still, even a great philosopher has a right to a small weakness here and there.

Thankfully, Žižek doesn't spend too much time on these feeble attempts to resuscitate Lenin for the future of humanity. When he is not addressing the traumatic (especially, for someone of his origins) legacy of the Soviet Union and speaks, instead, of the present and the future, Žižek is spectacular. In On Belief, Žižek virulently assaults the contemporary pieties of certain liberal-leaning intellectuals. Their interest in all kinds of New Age philosophies that are supposed to rescue them from the evils of consumerist society deserves the philosopher's scorn:
The ultimate postmodern irony is thus the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the "economic infrastructure," "European" technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of "ideological superstructure," the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age "Asiatic" thought, which, in its different guises, from the "Western Buddhism" (today's counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the "Asiatic" Marxism–Leninism) to different "Taos," is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites in today's global civilization: although "Western Buddhism" presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.
We have all met liberals of this ilk. They spend their lives chasing after a spirituality of a higher order that they have found in quasi-Buddhist practices. Sitting in their incense-smelling rooms, surrounded by paraphernalia they bought in a store that boasts of selling items brought directly from Tibet, they pontificate for hours against the evils of Eurocentrism, flaunt their boringly ideological vegetarianism, and celebrate the supposedly pure and miraculous spiritual, medical and sexual advances of the Easterners. Unsurprisingly, Žižek, who is opposed to any kind of hypocrisy, has something to say about that. The very talk of Eurocentrism is an act of orientalism:

Therein resides the ultimate paradox: the more Europeans try to penetrate the "true" Tibet, the more the very FORM of their endeavor undermines their goal. We should appreciate the full scope of this paradox, especially with regard to "Eurocentrism." The Tibetans were extremely self-centered: "To them, Tibet was the center of the world, the heart of civilization." What characterizes the European civilization is, on the contrary, precisely its ex-centered character – the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object–cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there, in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to the European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of OUR OWN civilization. This story begins at the very dawn of Western civilization, in Ancient Greece: for the Greeks, Egypt was just such a mythic place of the lost ancient wisdom.
One cannot escape Europeanness through a flight - either imaginary or physical - towards the East. Just the opposite, the more passionately you embrace Eastern practices, the more anchored you become in your colonizing European identity. This kind of a rebellion is not only devoid of any actual transgressive value, it actually reinforces the very practices from which it purports to liberate you. The same sad process of a formerly transgressive behavior becoming a pillar of a repressive establishment can be seen in the realm of student rebellion:

The "truth" of the student's transgressive revolt against the Establishment is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game, solicited by the gadgets which organize our life as the permanent dealing with excesses.
The irony of the situation is that Žižek, whose every word is aimed at being a transgressive act, is especially loved by spoiled trust fund babies turned Ivy League graduate students who entertain themselves with Žižek's writings as they are biding their time before taking control of the very establishment they like to imagine themselves as subverting.

In a similar way, the tolerant multi-culturalists who celebrate the Other and spend their lives in a navel-gazing privilege examination are exactly the same as fundamentalist Evangelicals in the US. We all know how much Žižek dislikes such fanatics of tolerance (and how grateful I am to the great philospher for shining a light of reason on them). I only wish that I ever find my way to formulating my objections to their peculiar brand of fanaticism as beautifully and precisely as Žižek does:
Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other's excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other's Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN "other," not to become too much like us.
I have seen these attempts to enforce Otherness by our tolerant comrades more times than I care to remember on this very blog. They hate it when anybody tries to address Otherness with anything than quasi-respectful silence. These fanatics of meaningless tolerance are terrified that a discussion, an analysis, a rapprochement will reduce the Otherness of those they desperately need to be fully and completely Other. Without scratching the itchy scab of their imaginary privilege ona adaily basis, they will have no sense of their own identity, their own self-worth. This is why there is nothing more disrespectful of the Other than a refusal to discuss the limits of its Otherness. The position that "Every choice has an equal right to exist" is profoundly imbued with the capitalist philosophy, which is the reason Žižek hates it so much.

[The second part of the review is located here]


Pagan Topologist said...

This is fascinating. I no doubt qualify as a "tolerant multiculturist" but I would describe myself as a xenophile. I want to understand other cultures, but some of them do indeed intimidate me, even when I have close friends who belong to them. I most definitely embrace the melting pot model of North American culture. The difficulty is that many people expect things to happen instantly, or at least quickly. The numerous cultures that make up the mosaic of North American society are indeed merging into something different from any or them, over time frames of centuries. For example, the melding of Iroquois ideals with European Enlightenment ideals made the U. S. Constitution possible. It would never have happened without the centuries long interfacing between the two cultures that preceeded the tumultuous events of the late 18-th century leading to the formation of the United States of America. Canada has learned from this and gone far beyone it, avoiding many of the problems or racism and rigid class structures, as you have pointed out before. Mexico is doing the same to a more significant degree than many people in the U. S. realize.

My expectation is that in a few more centuries we shall have a culture in the U. S. and probably the rest of North America which will indeed be a blending of those present here now separately to one degree or another.

I am an escapee from fundamentalism, nevertheless.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for reading the review and responding to it! Now that I have posted that video on voting in Catalunya, nobody is noticing the review that I worked so hard to produce.

"For example, the melding of Iroquois ideals with European Enlightenment ideals made the U. S. Constitution possible. "

-I have never heard of the influence of the Iroquios ideals on the US constitution, to my shame. Could you tell me more about it or where I could read about this.

Pagan Topologist said...

It has been a long time since I have read it, but there is a book called, if I recall correctly, Forgotten Founders. It has a subtitle which makes it clear that it is referring to the Iroquois, I think, but I don't remember it. If you cannot find it, I will look for more information.

Clarissa said...

I just found it! It's here:

Thank you! I will have some serious reading to do over the Thanksgiving break. :-)

eric said...

True...the influence of the Iroquois confederation upon the founding fathers is no secret, though more should be brought to light on the subject.

As for Zizek...I read On Belief back in 2003, following on the heals of The Fragile Absolute. Though many New Agers are annoying and covertly racist, I think Zizek's approach to religion is reductionistic at best--he apporaches the subject with an insensistivity that would embarass an undergrad. Buddhism is not just another parochial pagan religion--it too is universalistic. That is why Schopenhauer thought it a suitable replacement for Judeo-Christianity in the West. Sorry, gotta side with Schope on this one!

eric said...

Sorry, it was "embarras"-- excuse the spelling!

Clarissa said...

I'll get to Zizek's views on religion in the second part of the review. I don't think it's Buddhism per se that bothers him, as it's what has been done to it by these specific Western quasi-Buddhists.

I agree that his view of religion is reductive, though.

Kyle said...

I'm not sure if Zizek's take is quite right, though I think aspects of his argument are insightful. He's right in pointing out that a tendency exists (especially in the modern, western left) to take tolerance to the a certain reducto ad absurdum. And westernized Buddhism provides a great example of this--many atheists adhere to a westernized form of Tibetan Buddhism, not realizing that Tibetan Buddhism branch is deeply polytheistic. (An even better example: I have a friend who thinks female genital cutting is acceptable as part of cultural self-determination, as if the "choice" of a culture is somehow more important than the choice of, you know, the real people who are victims.)

This element exists and is fairly significant in modern, liberal western society--but it doesn't constitute the whole of western multiculturalism, and I'm not sure it even dominates among "tolerant multi-culturalists." The problem isn't some kind of pro-tolerance fundamentalism, but ignorant tolerance. Zizek seems to think that attempting to understand the Other only results in preserving the Other's Otherness, and can never create an equal forum of ideas.

While I've read enough of and by Zizek to think that this is a pretty fair criticism of his writing, I haven't read that much by him, so if you think my interpretation of his argument is wrong, let me know. But whenever I read his work, I get the nagging feeling that he thinks tolerance is the problem instead of ignorance (or ignorant tolerance). And, at the very least, he doesn't do a great job of articulating the alternative to multiculturalism. (Who's he to say that whole cultures are superior to other whole cultures? Unless, in typical Zizek fashion, the answer is communism, communism, communism. And Lacan's outdated, sexist psychoanalysis.)

Clarissa said...

"Unless, in typical Zizek fashion, the answer is communism, communism, communism. And Lacan's outdated, sexist psychoanalysis.)"

- :-) You nailed it with this definition, Kyle. :-)

cita said...

It seems Zizek never mentions his homeland in his lectures, books, esseys ...
Are you interested where he comes from?

Look at the stuff I gathered under Politics in my blog

rakoenigsberg said...

The point of Asian thought is not to critique (Western) civilization, but precisely to separate from the need to be bound to civilization. See my online publication REMEMBERING EXISTENCE.

The problem with Zizek (and most Western thinkers) is that they critique thought from within a framework of thinking. So no matter how brilliant they are, they are always bound to the symbolic order.

The most profound forms of Eastern thought (e. g., Zen) conceive of a psychic space that is separate from thought. Zizek can't go there because his status and self-esteem are bound to his conception of himself as a thinker.

To be beyond thought is to separate from the symbolic order: to be nothing: that is the place of Zen.

Richard Koenigsberg

Clarissa said...

I think you are mistaking Zizek's intention here. He does not address Eastern thought in any significant way because, from my point of view, he realizes quite well that he doesn't have nearly enough knowledge to engage with it on an intellectual level.

Zizek's area of interest lies with Western intellectuals of a pseudo-liberal ilk who believe that their playing at Buddhism somehow makes them more enlightened.