Falling from Zizek to Rowling: running for cover
If sky diving has taught me anything, it is that the human mind cannot handle absolutes. As you tumble out of the plane you are not falling, but simply being buffeted around a white orb, with absolutely no constraints. It is a moment of terrifying, horrible freedom. When you see the ground it is a major relief; now you have a reference point. Even a potential lethal reference point is preferable to the open maw of the absolute. With gravity as your aid, you flee earthward.
Which brings me to Slavoj Zizek (pronounced, I am assured, Slavoy Jgzzijgzzek, if that helps) and his essays in Welcome to the Desert of the Real. He is perhaps the smartest human I have ever encountered in my life. Zizek is also the only man who I would gladly sign petitions compelling both censorship as well as compulsory prolification of his works. Slavoj Zizek mercilessly holds up the horrible absolute truth, and shames our moral relativism, as it deserves. He makes my soul cry; his insight is too cutting and cruel and honest. He makes me think more than anybody since Nietzsche, and he makes me see that I don’t want to think any more!
When you follow Nietzsche’s path revaluating morals and questioning the linkages between belief and other societal phenomena long enough, you come to a place where you finally know yourself, and why you believe in your tailored faith. Everything false has been burned away. But as you stand there, confident in your morality, the biting wind of loneliness blows, and you wish you had a companion.
He takes pity on you in that moment, as a man who knew the solitude of the mountains and the pain of the solitary path, and offers you a get-out-of-jail-free-card (is it bad that this is the only thing I learnt from Monopoly? was I always bound to be seeking escape from capitalist cells rather than seeking capitalist success?): “that which is done out of love exists beyond good and evil“. Love supersedes morality. Let’s love and be free from the chains of right and wrong! Let’s dance uninhibited by weighty concepts of oppressive grey clouds! Joy and love guide us from the rubble of morality into the glorious dawn of the free age!
In contrast, Zizek does not relent. Oh how I hate him for that. He pins you in all your self-deception, and mercilessly forces the point!
What does he say?
Zizek starts off well. He says that the reason we think we are free is because we lack the language to show us how un-free we are. In countries founded on free speech (demonstrated wonderfully here by Reverend Billy), the modern idealogical discourse is still limited to Cold War black and white; just now it is modern democracy vs fundamentalism instead of capitalism vs communism (and really, in Australia and the US, modern democracy refers to two-party democracy; governments with minority assistance are somehow viewed as illegitimate when politically convenient). Deep, and ultimately uncomfortably truthful. This nicely sums up why, despite the openness of our societies to ideological debate, ideologies as socialism, anarchism, fascism, etc have been made irrelevant without the use of censorship. As our speech is framed by restrictive terms of debate, our freedom of speech is never infringed. Sounds great, good point! Now I can see why people ridicule my beliefs; they are socially irrelevant and thus ridiculous. I might as well believe in fairies (I kind of do!) as in anarchism as far are the terms of debate are concerned!
Which makes the point, when engaging in free speech, we need to keep an eye on the terms of the debate as well as on the debate itself. For example:
It is the terms, rather than the content, of the interaction that constrains the relationship between genie and wisher. Which is more powerful?
Right now, Nietzsche would be patting us on the back. We would make some s’mores. We would hang out, enjoying the esprit d’corps of those of us who had made it this far. It would be AWESOME!
Zizek, not so. 😦 No high-fives. No s’mores. He has more to talk about.
Now he’s got you on his (often unintelligible to the non-humanities student reader) wavelength, he really gives it to you! You’d better be ready for some absolute truth. Relative progress is not enough. Being a pinko won’t save me now, not under his knife!
In this modern discourse, he says, we also only accept outsiders on our own terms. We are still ultimately afraid of ‘otherness’ and so in our multiculturalism we take from other cultures only that which is readily assimilated. We take the spirituality of the Indian subcontinent, but leave aside the caste system. (Think about that terrible Julia Roberts moofie with all its existential confusion wrapped in cosmetic and borrowed spirituality). It is foreign and therefore still threatening. Could this be true? Oh no! Could it be true of me too? Could I be afraid of ‘otherness’ even as I myself represent otherness in all my immigrant-ness? Surely he is speaking only of the bad people, right?
Wrong. This is why I hate Zizek, and why I need to read his work. We were peeps. Then he got all uncomfortably honest about me.
I am not xenophobic, but as a white, professional man in the first world, I have everything anyone could want and more. Therefore I have a truly disgusting amount to lose. Despite not believing that nefarious interests (aside from Wall Street corporations) are up all night plotting how to dispossess me of all my really quite undeserved luxury, I am still afraid. But whether driven by xenophobia or greed, fear is fear is fear. And somewhere in my soul, it lives and breeds. When I walk the streets of large cities, it makes me ill at ease.
With this admission of fear, everything becomes unstable. What if my morality is founded on fear, not on love? For example, what if my veganism is not about love of animals, but on a fearful need to avoid association with suffering? Where are good and evil now? What do I know about myself, and what I believe, and what drives my actions?
That is when I really hate Zizek. He comes to me then, not to comfort me, or warn me in a beneficent way. He comes to me as a spectre of loss, with the promise that the self-deception and lying morality of my life will one day be the rope that hangs me, pinned amongst all the contradictions and fears that I was not brave enough to face or transcend.
Nietzsche offers me a s’more. It turns to ash in my mouth.
We know what fire is to come.
So I run. I turn to JK Rowling and Harry Potter. I turn to duvets and corn chips. Comfort me, make the specter go.