Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Who Believes What Today? (Slavoj Zizek at The New School)

By Nicholas Allanach

It is hard to resist the urge to not toss a beach ball across the crowded audience. And why shouldn’t I? After all, this atmosphere resembles a rock concert, not a philosophy lecture. Of course, the reason I patiently (however uncomfortably) sat on the floor alongside students blocking the aisles, fire escapes, and filling the hall to full capacity, was to see “the Elvis of social theory”, Slavoj Zizek, speak. But, one wondered, how many in this audience had ever actually read Zizek’s work? Perhaps, they were just here to confirm the hype surrounding Slovenia’s most irreverent cultural critic? Whatever the case, Zizek did not disappoint.

Getting right down to it, Zizek launches into his ambiguously titled lecture, “The Ignorance of Chicken: Who Believes What Today?” Of course, to understand the central tenet of Zizek’s proposition “we don’t actually believe –we, only, believe we believe”, one must (as it were) be in on the joke. This joke is about a chicken; or more specifically, a man who believes he is a piece of grain and, subsequently, fears the chicken that could eat him. Eventually, the delusional man goes to therapy; where, ultimately, he becomes convinced he is not a piece of grain; however, the man still feels anxious about the chicken. Bewildered, the therapist asks, “Why are you still afraid of the chicken? You know you’re not a piece of grain!” To which the man replies, “Yes, I know I’m not a piece of grain, but does the chicken know I’m not?”

This joke (however flippantly) illustrates “the function of belief today”, which assumes, even if we don’t believe in God, patriotism, or karma, that there is no real way to differentiate our identities from their connection to larger symbolic constructs. The very language we utilize reasserts such beliefs and their continued social relevance. Thus, “the individual ego may not believe, but does the big Other?” Zizek is obviously—for better or worse—a Lacanian. Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, proposed human subjectivity as being created through its use of language; thus the symbolic, or “big Other”, organizes all social relations, and does so the instant the subject begins to play the game of discourse. Lacan referred to this moment as “The Mirror Stage.” Therefore, as Zizek states, “The instant we take part in language, we take part in belief.” No exceptions.

Respectfully, ideology today functions the same way as belief. Zizek claims, “neither is taken seriously, [we are] distanced from it as if we we’re playing a game.” For instance, one can assert “Belief and ideology are merely societal constructs”; nevertheless, such constructs still make us into who we are by defining what and how we believe. Belief directs being. Thus, we should be very concerned with how beliefs affect our actions. Consequently, one may not believe in belief, because of the repercussions they may experience in their professional life (i.e. one is too educated and/or conscious of such silly illusory constructs). But, does the belief not believe in us?

Put simply, “you can convince someone he/she is not sick, but can you convince the symptom?” Zizek’s argument may seem like a vague “theatre of shadows”, but his social criticism unveils a tangible, realistic, and wide-spread attitude pertaining to belief and ideology today. This attitude isn’t so much about indifference as it is about “believing to believe”, or, convincing oneself in a lie. In this sense, believers “lie sincerely” about what they accept as truth. For instance, one can say, “I believe in God,” but they then must equally “believe to believe” this to be true; the part of them that remains uncertain—or at least, honestly acknowledges God as a societal construct—must “lie sincerely” about their personal beliefs; especially when unable to appropriately prove there validity.

Zizek poses the question; “Do fundamentalists believe?” And then firmly answers, “No. Fundamentalists do not believe, a fundamentalist knows.” Zizek proposes that a fundamentalist is so certain in his/her “belief” that they cannot distinguish religion and God as being “belief”—let alone mere “societal constructs”—but, instead, as actual reality itself. “Belief [is understood as being] a counterfactual wager”, or, “leap of faith”; whereas, to “know” is to interpret religion or politics as absolute truth. Fundamentalism is, of course, highly dangerous since it remains locked into an end-all-be-all-game of apparent certainty. Regretably, by interpreting texts and symbols as absolute, many will live (and subsequently, sacrifice) their entire lives as either martyrs or subservient masses bowing to a symbolically constructed God concept.

The most interesting aspect of belief today isn’t so much about simultaneously “beling in x” while admitting “x” is just a “societal construct” (which it is); but instead, that “believers” are able to explain and legitimize the various uncertainties and/or uncomfortable discrepancies of their own behavior through the apparent “pureness” of an ideology. For instance, Zizek claims, “Capitalism is tolerable not because it is just, but because it is unjust.” Meaning, instead of one taking personal accountability for the fact they’re “an idiot, [one] can, instead, blame it all on chance.” Capitalism is a fine example of a “game that can be played with a fair amount of inner distance.” Zizek states, “Suffering is invisible to the board room and the trading room floor.” Thus, one place remains “pure” and “idealized” while another can be just as easily erased and forgotten. Zizek observes, “An egotistical capitalist (or survivalist) must retain an untouched Other to remain pure.” For instance, one can remain “godly”, even while making ruthless and harmful decisions through deplorable fiscal and social policies. In fact, as long as one is “pure” and “god-loving”, they are subsequently guaranteed a place in heaven. In this sense, “belief” can be conveniently interchangeable. Belief can also be used for purposes of egotistical and self-serving convenience. Thus, the “believer” only “believes to believe” for his/her own purposes, thus making ideology just another exchangeable “societal construct.” In this sense, America can paradoxically profess to be a Christian nation and yet be the least Christian in its greedy, destructive, and hypocritical behavior.

In a world of global finance, “changes can happen arbitrarily in an instant.” Accordingly, it is no wonder such uncertainty would be mirrored through such strange beliefs. Reasonable and logical people are capable of acknowledging that “ones attachment to reality is only perception”; and furthermore, since reality changes, so doesn’t one’s “perception.” In this sense, “There is no self (or “soul”), only a chain of impermanent perceptions.” Nevertheless, each of these perceptions can be trumped up as absolute through an apparent “knowledge of one’s rightful connection to God.” This scourge of fundamentalism rots beneficial, tangible, and honest “societal constructs” with blind faith. Why are we so unable to distance ourselves from these dusty—and often harmful—symbols of “the big Other?” Why should we tolerate religious extremism and fundamentalists readings of religious texts when they continue to inspire and excuse the slaughter of human beings? Perhaps, we tolerate ideological extremism because, if we didn’t, we would have to also question other “extreme beliefs.” For example, “capitalism is tolerable, not because it is just, but because it is unjust. Meaning, it’s not my fault I’m an idiot –it’s [the fault of] chance.” One could just as easily say, “God is great, not because he is just, but because he is unjust. Meaning, it’s not my fault I’m an idiot or that the world is a horrible place. This is all merely god’s will.”

Reasonable people should never espouse such cowardly ignorance -this mode of thinking should be reserved for the chickens alone.

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