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.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Double or Nothing: The Parallax of Evil (Jean Baudrillard at The New School)

By Nicholas Allanach

Karl Marx claimed, “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.” I understand this quote to mean; previously significant struggles eventually end in ruin to then be replaced by a ludicrous and empty spectacle. Internationally renowned (and equally ridiculed) sociologist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, recently argued in a presentation titled, “The Parallax of Evil: Hegemony and Domination” delivered at The New School, that traditional forms of domination (i.e. real struggle) have been replaced by hegemony (i.e. parody or farce). Of course, to properly understand Baudrillard’s argument one must first unpack his unique and non-traditional understanding of hegemony.

According to Baudrillard, “hegemony [actually] brings domination to an end [and does so through a capitalist system of] total exchange.” In this sense, hegemony becomes “the ultimate stage of domination” since it replaces all traditional modes of revolt with an utter ambivalence. In other words; customary domination (or, the “master vs. slave” dialectic) is no more and makes revolt an impossibility. Baudrillard sees hegemony as proliferated through “all networks” to subsequently make people “ambivalent” and subject to an “involuntary complicity with the world order.” But how does this happen? Moreover, how does Baudrillard’s argument account for the political conflicts and struggles currently being waged? Are destitute Muslim youth rioting in France, or, workers protesting the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Argentina ambivalent?

To answer the first question, ambivalence is a social result of “power turning against itself.” Such “cannibalization” can only occur when power “moves beyond its own limits.” Respectfully, we observe a “liquidization of value…representation...and [even] reality” itself. Thus, once a sphere of power (i.e. politics, entertainment, business, etc.) moves beyond its own limit (such as capital) it, subsequently, becomes “liquidized” and transfused throughout all other spheres of power, making everything it touches banal, ineffectual, and simulated. Examples of this occurrence (i.e. “operational whitewash”) can be seen within the multiple spaces in which the lines that formerly defined power begin to blur. For instance, politics becomes entertainment, war is sport, and everything is aestheticized. In other words, domination is replaced by a parody of hegemony as well as the “ambivalence [seen] in each of us [which serves as] a mirror to a greater global antagonism.”

The far-reaching and overly ambivalent “passive majority” that absorbs and is, subsequently, absorbed by images, is a direct result of this total hegemonic order; however, animosity still exists and is most effectively illustrated by “the spirit of terrorism.” Baudrillard admits “The stakes are getting higher”as we find ourselves trapped in an unfortunate “double or nothing” game. Baudrillard asserts any “opposition to global hegemony can only be unpredictable –total revolt is a response to total order.” Of course, Baudrillard is unable to offer any solution to this all encompassing and problematic impasse; (of course, as he jokingly responds to a later question –“I am not a therapist”) however, he does criticize “the dream of democracy [as being] without hope.” Certainly, such a gloomy outlook may displease us; however, it is, in many respects, more realistic than pessimistic. After all, it would be foolish to assume “opening the door for democracy in the Middle East”, is really about people’s rights and not about “opening the door” for a greater free-trade zone for capitalist ambitions.

To recognize “the stakes” of this “double or nothing game” we must understand what Baudrillard means when boldly asserting the “conflict between Islam and the West is only an appearance.” In other words, there is a greater and more fundamental conflict occurring that is not about a war on terror, but is about the war being carried out inside each ambivalent and/or hostile individual on the planet. We are all at war. This war is between two extremely powerful and contradictory poles. One side is represented by the western logic of empire, which is sealed, locked, and seeks to remake the world in the guise of its own image. This logic is inherent to the totalizing system of hegemonic capital and can only exchange money and empty simulated signs to gain greater forms of control. The alternative side to this conflict is a non-western system of symbolic exchange which is genuine, durable, and indestructible since it represents the traditional “foundations” of belief, culture, and society itself. However, this western logic of capital is irresistible, intoxicating, and ultimately seeks to “unveil the symbolic defenses” of the Other so as to more aggressively achieve absolute hegemony.

It is difficult to say what side will ultimately win this conflict or even whether one can begin considering what such a victory might look like. We can only be sure of one thing, the answer to this difficult question will be found in the capacity for violence in the world system itself. What limits will each side of power overstep (through violence) to achieve its goal? Baudrillard sees the “intelligence of evil” as a “reversion” of the totalizing order of hegemonic capitalism. Once again—as is the case with hegemony—“evil” is not to be understood in a customary dialectical sense; but instead, as Baudrillard claims, a “reversion to the dominating totality of hegemony.”

Jean Baudrillard is an incredibly prolific and complex social theorist, his work is often difficult to accept (or for that matter, even understand); however, I often question whether one’s aversion to his philosophy is based more on fear than ignorance? After all, one is a fool if they cannot accept the competing forces in our social landscape: on one side, we see the intoxication of capitalism with all of its empty signs and, on the other, the root of traditionalism and belief itself. Hopwever, one is only afraid if they are unable to accept the real war. In this sense, history does, as Marx observed, “repeat itself”; first, as “the tragedy” of the struggle and then as “the farce”, or appearance, we ambivalently accept and then foolishly ignore.