Archives for posts with tag: God

I had originally intended this as a comment on JJ’s recent critique of Zizek’s theology (which is really a theological critique of ideology, via Marx, Hegel, et al. — the usual players). However, it’s thorough enough that I think it’s more suited for posting. Maybe we can start a ‘conversation’ of sorts this way.

You’re right that there seems something false, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing and even ‘obscurantist,’ ironically, in Zizek’s theological (and other) work. He does make glaring omissions, and he always uses the critique of capitalism as the ultimate excuse to take potshots. It’s a painfully obvious crutch. If he weren’t so good at theory in general, it’d be an embarrassment.

It’s true, as you say, that many on the far-Right use the notion of the supreme, ‘sacred’ right to one’s own (irrefutable) beliefs/opinions in order to avoid criticism. However, they also use this in defense of what they truly believe to be real facts (think of Creationism). The obsession with reading the Bible as fact, regardless of the evidence, does not mean that fundamentalist Christians cling to belief despite facts, despite the inaccuracy of the Bible. They’re still obsessed with facts and not belief. It’s just that they develop their own facts against any reasonable position, and they claim that the Bible is the ultimate source of facts. They’re still very anti-Kierkegaardian. There’s only one way to God, and it’s through their own, bizarre facts.

I think the same could be said of the misogynist, homophobic, etc., strains in fundamentalist Christianity. These beliefs are based on what they assert to be facts. It’s as if anything they don’t like, they can say they don’t like it because they Bible tells them they shouldn’t (the ultimate proof of this false reliance on the Bible as an authority is that, ironically, they add their own ¨facts¨ to the Bible when it doesn’t say something they want it to say about a form of social life that’s alienating to them).

In a way, it’s very risky what Zizek is doing. He’s bypassing the critique of the specific problems with the fundamentalist beliefs in order to critique the basic form they take, their ideological ‘matrix.’ This leaves open the possibility that those specific problems will continue. In other words, the ultimate way to bring down the fundamentalists wouldn’t be to convince them of the ridiculousness of their theories (since obviously that’s failed time and again). It would be, rather, to meet them head-on, on their own terms, take what they believe, and criticize how they themselves do not even follow their own legacy, how they themselves, if they wanted to be good Christians, wouldn’t cling to their ¨facts¨ (see how that’s more appealing to them, to hear a critic who’s ostensibly like them? — even though, yes, Zizek is an atheist). By accepting their terms, he could begin to start a successful dialogue with them (if one can speak this generously about such a confrontational personality). In a way, I think this is what reviewers mean when they say Zizek is ¨the most dangerous philosopher in the West¨ — he’s doing great work, but his ideas are so radical, it’s risky and dangerous for even the Left to follow them.

Of course, then the question becomes, well, is he actually speaking to the Right at all? That is up for debate. I think I’d say he’s actually not at all speaking to them… so, perhaps I’ve just contradicted myself… hmm, maybe Hegel has something to say about that?

But to continue anyway, as far as Zizek’s real audience, here’s my argument for why he’s actually speaking to the Left. The type of rhetoric that goes on in far-Right and fundamentalist Christian discourse is so disturbing, it almost seems hopeless to continue to critique it. It’s just astounding. People won’t listen to reason. And when there’s a new critique, whether an article or a documentary, etc., the author’s always preaching to the choir… no one who needs convincing is actually going to be convinced. So in some ways, frankly, I think that Zizek is right to avoid making criticisms that seem very important to us. He’s said somewhere that the way to triumph is to symbolically ¨castrate¨ the far-Right so that, all of a sudden, ¨their voices will get a little bit higher,¨ meaning that no one will listen to them. It’s like giving someone the cold shoulder. Sometimes that’s more effective, I think, than directly confronting them. So I think  Zizek’s ultimate concern is to help the Left formulate its own project, to convert more and more people already on the Center or the Center-Left to the radical Left. Then, maybe, we’ll be a majority, and the conservatives simply won’t have an effective platform?

I’ve always had suspicions about Zizek’s ‘theories.’ I keep thinking that there’s gotta be a reason for it — that there’s wisdom behind all the weirdness. But my doubts keep lingering. I usually defer to his word because I haven’t done nearly as much study as he has. And sure, he’s just as fallible as anyone else. But I think you’re right on some points. He does seem to misread, or misleadingly read, several philosophers. I haven’t read as much Kierkegaard as you have. And I might dive back into it.

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Theodor Adorno famously said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Later, in an essay titled “Commitment,” he responds to critics:

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Supulture, ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherant in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society. But Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the one of how to react to it…

…by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice.

So, to make a simple comparison, I would say that to believe in God after Auschwitz is barbaric.

God has often been understood as a supernatural force that orchestrates all events unfolding in the universe. It is by his hand that things follow an understandable, if unpredictable, pattern. Thus, things have meaning. This was the same conception introduced by the first religious peoples, those for whom every major environmental feature presented itself as a deity, each one part of a pantheon of gods. But many contemporary popularizations of this old way of existing in a world of gods are surely mistaken. People did not literally “see” gods all around them. The gods were metaphors used to weave a coherent narrative of the world. Each god was the archetype of a certain set of attitudes or behaviors. Each had its own peculiar agency. One could describe an event to others by telling a story involving gods. But there weren’t gods everywhere. There was “sense” everywhere.

These narratives short-circuited a possible encounter with the senselessness of the Real, with a world of indeterminable scope. By delimiting the possible scope of the world, narratives made the world manageable; since so much of it could thereafter be taken for granted, weaved into a coherent whole, a solid deep structure, one could all the more easily react to day-to-day surface-level changes in the world. Otherwise one would be left without anything to focus on, no focal point around which to structure a general motivation for, or mode of, survival.

Narratives set in place a closed loop of causal explanations, a reservoir, an easy shortcut for explaining all manner of phenomena. But after Auschwitz, such narrativized understandings of the world are barbaric, and stupid. They do an injustice to the power of nature, its inexplicable, terrifying aspects, into which science can only begin to probe. The notions of God in circulation today unfortunately often follow the scheme laid out above. God has a “plan” (for me, my family, my nation, our planet, etc.). Nothing has changed, except that the multiple centers of agency in the polytheistic worldview are now condensed into a singular point containing every possible causal explanation; the monotheistic notion of God condenses into one agency the omniscience and omnipotence at work in any polytheistic scheme before or since.

Gods delimit the space of narrativized reality; they still decide not only what happens within that space (what action or happening is possible or actual), but also what is necessarily outside it (what is impossible or unreal — Lacan’s ‘Real’). Even when gods had foibles, as in Ancient Greece, they played a crucial role in a totalizing narrative, a source of absolute knowledge and power. In fact these foibles make things easier to understand, since they help us relate to the masters of the universe. And that way they’re more likable authority-figures. It’s hard to avoid making the comparison to politics today, in which figures like Berlusconi achieve electoral victories by entertaining the people; information, however powerful, is plain when compared to the drama of hapless and corrupt leaders. In the same way, it took a long time for the stern, sober Christian god to catch on in an ancient Roman world in which the people could worship all manner of interesting characters.

So the question is, what kind of God can there be after Auschwitz? What is a committed notion of God, a committed religion? Maybe we can look to Zizek for guidance here. Is God the divine grace of the Event, the violence of Terror and Love? The force beyond the confines of the vicious cycle of the law and its transgression? If any conception of God can respect the horror of life, then surely it is this one.