The Dull Compulsion of the Economic (ix): Zizek

by Chris Sturr | April 22, 2009

A series of blog postings by D&S collective member Larry Peterson

A Meditation on The Monstrosity of Christ

OK, that was a seductively incomplete, or even misleading title for this blog entry. The reference is not so much to Jesus Christ as it is to the atheistic, Marxist-inspired philosopher/critic/psychoanalyst/you-name-it Slavoj Zizek, who has teamed up with the theologian John Milbank in this release by MIT Press, and gave a lecture with the same title at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA on Monday night. Like most of Zizek’s offerings, the title involves wordplay (in this case, the signified work seems to be, as will become apparent later, I hope, the mediaeval devotional work The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis) which suggests that the object (Christ) is, in fact, of lesser significance than the historical and social conditions that, given their convoluted, not to mention tragic, historical play, or dialectic, if you will, have come to invest the former with an exaggerated significance. And this symptomatic, inevitably perhaps, fosters cultural and institutional distortions that, in this case, ensure that the plain words of Christ will be, in practice, turned upside down (thereby vitiating any real significance they might still hold for us). By coming in intuitive conflict with his “provocative” wordplay, Zizek hopes to provoke a materialist, common sense, Brechtian awakening. Needless to say, to go from Jesus Christ to matters as disparate as the nature of Lee Kuan Yew’s regime in Singapore, contemporary capitalism’s seemingly inexplicable resuscitation of rent-seeking, and on to the ideological significance of Batman, the Black-Knight, or whatever the hell he was, is no job for an amateur, and Zizek did not disappoint. In what follows, I will attempt to relate what I found to be the breathtaking intellectual ride Zizek led me on that night. I didn’t begin to take notes (in the dark, with a pen almost out of ink, and on the 2″x5″ ticket to the event), so my rendition will be impressionistic and topical rather than chronological. Still, I found the argument, which, I felt, was not always made fully implicit, to be remarkably tight, in spite of Zizek’s far-flung categorical forays.

The unifying theme of the lecture, to me, concerned the nature of the “Other” and of freedom in contemporary society. This sounds hokey, but Zizek made it clear from the start, and with the use of very explicit language, that his notion of the “Other” involves all those aspects of other human beings, which, especially in situations or under social conditions characterized by growing duress, tend to be perceived as unwanted and even unjustifiable constraints on freedom the ability of acting persons to do as they see fit. To some degree, the “Other” always impinges on our freedom, and, in certain cases, we readily and willingly hand over our freedom, at least temporarily, anyway: under the sway of charismatic authority, for instance; and even, as many people understand it, in the defining state of human experience or potential, that of love.

But Zizek seemed to hone in on cases in which the “Other” is already defined as that which precisely doesn’t bear anything close to this kind of distinction, or on cases in which it’s all too easy to fall back on available justifications in the culture to employ acceptable pre-existent barriers to prevent the “Other” from turning into something that could trip us up at all on any kind of purported advance toward wish-fulfillment at best, or avoidance of mere discomfort otherwise. Accordingly, the “Other”, to Zizek, is the very sort of person who, far from corresponding to the super-abstract, ghostly presence one has come to expect from tendentious postmodern tomes, seems to go out of his or her way to bring out the worst in us, in terms defined by society in the most emphatic and primitive terms it has at its often considerable disposal.

Zizek illustrated with a telling example where he wanted to go with this. He mentioned a dinner party he went to with a professor and some graduate students here in Cambridge a while ago at which participants were instructed to introduce themselves by mentioning, besides their names, their profession or concentration, their sexual orientation. Now this is where Zizek, in my recollection, could have been more explicit, but my take was that his discomfort with this experience concerned the fact that it, inasmuch as it attracted no comment or surprise by the participants, seemed to evidence the pervasiveness of an exaggeratedly formalistic attitude towards sexuality which, though seemingly open and accommodative, is in fact restrictive in precisely those matters the society is most intensely conflicted about, and requires open discussion or, if you will, engagement with the “Other” if it is to resolve, or simply acknowledge the existence of, potentially serious conflicts.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Zizek seems to see that normative standards, especially in societies which privilege conceptions of the individual, often work more by appealing to self-conceptions (however accurate) rather than (and in precedence to) notions of others, especially those who are on receiving end. That being the case, the seemingly implicit object of the normative attitude, the “Other”, almost invariably appears as an imposition to be avoided from the start, and engagements with that Other will tend to be seen from the start as overly restrictive of freedom. Under these conditions, a real temptation to employ normative conceptions in ways that advertise a strictly limited applicability will almost certainly prove popular, especially if constraints on action are already being vigorously enforced by the society in its everyday workings. And contemporary capitalism is doubly indicted on this point: for, as it provides for the meeting of needs (petty or essential, real or confabulated) more efficiently than any system yet created, it encourages demand for further convenience (or potential freedom), but demands more flexibility (or potential constraint) on the part of the vast majority at the same time, precisely in order to produce these means of fulfillment that forever lag behind their ability to provide true freedom or satisfaction (if such things exist).

Back to the dinner party. What Zizek is saying here, I think, goes like this: to define the acceptable limits of conversation and conduct, the question about sexuality is presented to the participants. Most likely, the host expected that it would set his or her guests at ease. But any ease on their part was almost certainly ensured by the fact that they were all enlightened, modern, affluent graduate students and faculty. Where sexuality was concerned, however, the implicit message seemed to be this: you look and act enough like us to gain admittance to our party. But if you have some sort of issue with sexuality, we will not recognize it unless it is strictly limited to the sort which has already been decided in a specific way by just about everyone who would conceivably come to this party. So, if you are homosexual or heterosexual, that’s ok; but if you are by some small chance just someone who is a loser, and can’t find a partner of whatever sort, or some sort of pervert (if only in demand for a cure, or a sliver of sympathy in dealing with being saddled with such monstrous desires), your situation doesn’t fall into the category, and will not be discussed. In the even less likely event that someone who has made it through the implicit winnowing process insists on raising it, that person may be subject to censure, justified expulsion or worse. You have been warned!

The reference to Christ then becomes clear: Zizek actually spoke of the “neighbor” as the one who trips us (skandalos means “stumbling block” in Greek) up, or limits our freedom. This elicited in me thoughts of the parable of the Good Samaritan
, which, unfortunately, Zizek didn’t cite. In this parable, Jesus famously spoke of a man who was beaten and robbed, and left beside the road to die. A priest came by, looked at the body, and moved on. A Levite (or member of a privileged religious caste) came along, and did likewise. Finally, a Samaritan came by, took pity on the man, took him to an inn, and nursed him back to health at his expense. That’s where the story ends for most of us. Edifying, right?

Well, the way Christ told this story, as Zizek would no doubt affirm, involved a startling inversion. Samaritans, at the time of Christ, were referred to in the most derogatory terms possible; so Christ’s reference to them then would have the much same effect as if a contemporary Christ used the n-word to refer to the Samaritan in an updated version of the parable. This is where Christ’s words force us to truly confront the structural nature of the “Other”. And that is why Christ matters to Zizek; it’s not because of Jesus’ historical significance, but because of our twisted perception of him, and what that reveals about us, and our society. Zizek knows that normative concepts, though liberally thrown around in our society, are becoming, in fact, less relevant in the way we actually live our lives (in part because the market has come to mediate so much more of our lives). This, coupled with the structural narrowing of the spectrum of free movement in capitalist societies mentioned above, almost ensures that normative thought and discourse will increasingly be employed to preemptively build walls around the “Other” than to engage, however tentatively, with the “Other”. “Don’t even go there” has become the golden rule of post-industrial, globalized capitalism. And it’s for this reason that another society is necessary, one that more effectively, and more self-consciously interacts with the “Other”, especially when temptations to ignore cascading categories of “Others” seem to build up as fast as the division of labor becomes more specialized. A society of freely associated producers would be a start. And, lest it be forgotten, it is the “monstrosity” of Christ, or his reference to, nay existence as an “Other” (inasmuch as we limit our conceptions of him to their exact opposites, when we entertain them seriously at all), that constitutes our own “Imitation of Christ”. And it will only be by affirming his true “monstrosity”, or “Otherness” that we may right this image, and perhaps be able to put to use any parts of Christ’s message that remain truly relevant in this day and age.

I think this was the invisible string that Zizek held tightly to on his tightrope walk on Monday, but he also said many provocative things on sundry issues I’d like to comment on for the remainder of this post. One of the most interesting concerned his meditation on the opening of a split between capitalism and democracy worldwide. This is where he speaks of Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore. Zizek noted that this kind of authoritarian capitalism was in fact adopted as a model by Deng Xiaoping in China, and, earlier, played no small role in the development of South Korea from bombed-out semi-feudal society to post-industrial consumerism in less than two generations. Even Japan has been a one-party state except for a few years in the 1990s since the war. Zizek’s take seems to be that capitalism is becoming less able to garner popular support except in societies in which it is rigorously imposed. And in other societies, its growth trajectory will, in all likelihood, be increasingly reduced. This may not be much of a surprise in the wake of the financial crisis, but given the almost religious belief in the symbiosis of capitalism and democracy that held before the crisis (in spite of the experience of places like Singapore) it is a development that requires keen monitoring. Especially if countries like Singapore, which tend to be export-dependent and hold large current account surpluses, diversify into consumer-led economies (remember China’s large and growing income inequality), assuming they can successfully (and quickly) make this transition in the first place.

Not that Zizek expects a decisive movement towards socialism, or anything of that sort. I think this is precisely why Zizek focuses on his fears regarding a growing incompatibility between capitalism and democracy than on any promise of social movements that exist at the present. But he seems to insinuate something I have noticed myself: in the financial press, a lot has been written on the “failure” of capitalism, even by former Nobel economists (see, for instance, the Financial Times‘ series “The Future of Capitalism” http://www.ft.com/indepth/capitalism-future). But the same writers are quick to inform us, often in spite of their own recent myopia regarding capitalism’s failures, that there is no alternative. Any elaboration on this juxtaposition is completely lacking, except for the employment of platitudes. I think Zizek is hinting that the repressed thought here goes like this: when such commentators speak of no alternative to capitalism, they are really saying that there is no alternative to capitalism unless we can spontaneously and rapidly adapt to the level of freedom which any removal of capitalism (which so effectively meets needs, but so implacably makes new, often unanticipated demands, and while it conditions us to seek out new sources of freedom, or at least seeming satisfactions) will require of us. And, for once, I must agree with these people: it’s almost impossible to see us doing this. But it doesn’t make it less necessary, especially given the environmental reckoning.

Zizek also notes with some tongue-in-cheek perplexity the fact that the most advanced capitalist economies are relying more and more on rent-seeking forms of revenue than on profits from sales (or generation of surplus value, or even exploitation). In strict Marxian terms, this is odd: society should be moving toward intensifying competition with technological advances, not on protection of existing means of production. Like the resuscitation of absolute surplus value (longer working hours), however, it is an indisputable part of the most advanced economies or, again, it was until the crisis hit. In this vein, Zizek cites all the usual suspects: the vast swathes of corporate America, from financial firms which patent their “innovative” investments and business practices to pharmaceutical firms which do the same with life-forms themselves, and on to the advertisers, media and software firms which are being relied upon more and more to balance our still ridiculously high consumption levels (70% of GDP, down only 2% from before the crisis) internationally. Here, I wish Zizek had mentioned another phenomenon, the seeming revival of something corresponding to primitive accumulation, too. He actually did refer to one of the main documentary sources for this phenomenon, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. But didn’t make any connection between these phenomena. And he didn’t speak of another area I think he should find most illustrative of the confused condition of contemporary social structures, the rise of shadow and underground economies, and their increasing overlap with legal and visible ones (assuming talk of reform by the G20 and others on tax havens turns out to be characteristic bluster). It seems to me that all these elements must be put together, while acknowledging the old-fashioned super-exploitation that takes place in many of the places from which we source our consumer goods (though these are more-and-more tied to licensing-based industries like media companies and so on to promote them) and commodities.

Where all this is relevant, though, concerns the productive sphere explicitly. Zizek sees that Marx’s emphasis on the increase in producers’ knowledge of their own processes of production and ability to cooperate in that process is being compromised mightily by just about all of the developments
mentioned in the last paragraph. It’s funny, because I’ve seen economic commentary that lauds the fact that economically significant competition will occur more between units within the same company as between firms themselves (or that companies will extract profits more from this competition, presumably by reducing costs and protecting technologies, than by competing in markets for goods and services).

I’ll wrap this up now. I have no doubt that I haven’t done justice to Zizek’s virtuoso performance (particularly inasmuch as my comments haven’t been suitably critical!). But I hope that this post, if it does anything, will encourage others to see or read Zizek: he really does have his finger on a radical pulse that most writers don’t even know exists.

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  1. ..thanks for this report, enjoyed the read. I would recommend you to get into spiritualism if you are deeply interested in “the other” and what the parallax really is. Critical atheists/sceptics often have the best rationale to spiritual enlightenment, meant in the most literal sense it could be. Zizek is a dead end, the high priest of nothingness. He is probably as wrong about Hegel as you can be. But how should a nihilist understand a spiritual, Godly man (Hegel)? It’s not unlike Satan reading the bible though the analogy doesnt really come to perfection here.

    Greetings from Copenhagen

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