The Theology of Slavoj Zizek, a Critique – Part 2

In the previous post, I presented a quick overview of Zizek’s materialist theology, and began a critique of it. Before you read this post you should read the first one, since without the context of the first post of this series you won’t really understand what it is I am arguing against.

Zizek often quotes Melville Bartleby who takes the stance “I would prefer not to” as a philosophical stance against (psudo?) ethical individualistic demands put on us by ideology. I agree with Zizek here, but in the face of the Death of God, this mantra must be taken to the end and included. A clear example of Zizek’s naivety when it comes to not taking the “I would prefer not to” to the end is found in his book “Living in the end times” where he talks about growing tensions in the Netherlands between the Gay community and the Muslim immigrant community who are more and more homophobic. Zizek says in Location 3182 (kindle version) in “Living in the End Times”:

The tension is ultimately between the upper-middle-glass Dutch gays and the poor exploited Muslim immigrants. In other words, what effectively fuels the Muslims’ animosity is their perception of gays as part of a privileged elite which exploits them and treats them like outcasts. Our question to the gays should be thus: what did you do to help the immigrants socially? Why not go there, act like Communists, organize a struggle with them, work together?

The obvious answer is here Bartleby one, “I would prefer not to.” There is no shared struggle here, there is no Universality. It may very well be the case that many in the Dutch gay community genuinely don’t want to live around immigrants, they don’t care about them, and whatever grievances the immigrants have are not necessarily shared with the gay community. It is also the case that Muslim opposition to homosexuality is not merely a case of displaced angst, they are not idiots, it is not that they simply think that homosexuals are part of the oppressor. They have genuine theological reasons for opposing it arising from their religious tradition. The struggle of the Muslims is precisely that of holding on to their community, a community of identity. Even if their struggle was a struggle against oppression primarily, it might very well be the case that members the Dutch gay community don’t view what the Muslims consider oppression as oppression, they may not care about it, or they may even benefit from it. Universality doesn’t fix the problem because the question is “which universality,” this question is exactly what the fight is in the first place.

What Zizek must realize is that the Dutch homosexual who has a problem with the homophobia of these Muslim immigrants has just as much a right to say “I would prefer not to.” In fact they have just as much a reason to say “I would prefer not to” when it comes to inventing a struggle with the Muslims, and then organizing with them as they would have when it comes to anything else, including accepting the ideologies of Capitalism. This is exactly what happens, they say “I would prefer not to” when it comes to what is outside of their immediate interest.

What would really happen if God really died I think is what does actually happen now, Idolatry. The paradigmatic account of Idolatry is found in Exodus, the famous story of the Golden Calf, I think my case is illustrated in that story found in Chapter 32 of Exodus (from the NRSV):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

When reading this we have to remember that Moses was the mediator between Israel and God up until this point, he was the only one who knew God “face to face.” When Moses was up on the mountain the connection to God was gone. The Israelites thought that their connection to God had perhaps died, at that point it might as well be the case that God had died for them, seeing as it was only Moses who God talked to. Immediately the Israelites move to make a Golden Calf, and even push Aaron to make it for them, Aaron who from the beginning had known God’s plan and was even Moses’ spokesperson.

If there ever was an ultimate and literal example of commodity fetishism this is it. Up until that point the people of Israel were absolutely united in struggle, they were a group of liberated slaves, and they were united around a Christ like figure, Moses. Moses comes and gives them a guarantor of meaning, God, Yahweh, whereas before they had no God, or a God with no name, Moses came and gave them a God with a name, he gave them the God of their forefathers, he gave them a history. It is only when the “big Other” appears that Israel becomes a people, and not only when he appears, but is identified. When the “big Other” disappears, they resort to Idolatry.

Why didn’t the Israelites simply say “Moses is gone, Yahweh is dead, all we have is each other (The Holy Spirit), so let’s struggle together?” I think the answer is in what Aaron said after he made the calf, he said that these are the gods that had brought Israel out of Egypt. Aaron gave them a counter Telos, a counter source of meaning.

Yahweh was not a God which places limits on action, quite the opposite, it was a God which laid the basis for communal action, for liberation from Egypt. They wanted a God who could go before them, why? Without Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, the only thing that ties them together is their struggle, but the problem is that the struggle is not coordinated, it’s not centred.

The only reason the struggle would tie them together is if there is a “coincidence of wants” and not only a “coincidence of wants” but a guarantee that this coincidence is stable. What really would end up happening is either the struggle ends and the community disintegrates, or the struggle ends up as a struggle among strugglers. It ultimately must necessarily end in nihilism or Idolatry.

Small c communism (which is the basis for any genuine community) can only exist in a sutation of assumed eternity, to quote David Graeber from his book “Debt, the first 5000 years” on the subject of communism:

First, we are not really dealing with reciprocity here–or at best,
only with reciprocity in the broadest sense. What is equal on both
sides is the knowledge that the other person would do the same for
you, not that they necessarily will. The Iroquois example brings home
clearly what makes this possible: that such relations are based on a
presumption of eternity. Society will always exist. Therefore, there
will always be a north and a south side of the village. This is why no
accounts need be taken . In a similar way, people tend to treat their
mothers and best friends as if they will always exist, however well they
know it isn’t true.

This is really why, without God as the guarantor of meaning, genuine community is impossible. Without eternity, everything is contingent and any solidarity I have with you is contingent that you will have it with me, and be there for me, anything I share with you is contingent on the idea that you will share with me, or someone else will share with me. Without any guarantee there is always the option that the other will say “I would prefer not to,” and as long as there is that option, or the option of “there’s a way where I can get this done without having to trust you” there can be no basis for community. Any basis that comes up, be it common struggle, or anything else, is only as strong as it is able to limit the “I would prefer not to” or the “I don’t need you for this” option.

Solidarity among slaves in a slave revolt is destroyed when the option of an individual leaving and not being a slave is open, or when a few of them are offered freedom. Late Stand up Comedian Patrice Oneal summed up the point quite well when he said:

I’m gonna be better than you, is always the idea, that I’m gonna be better than you, so it’s not a people thing. And in America there’s always someone willing, because in Egypt, you notice the cops in Egypt wasn’t messing with the people, because they felt like “that’s your people, how we gonna just shoot up.” We will, we’ll … the promise of middle management, the promise of me being better than you.

To avoid this dilemma the Israelites did a very rational thing, they made an idol. I don’t think any other option was possible, since even nihilism ends up with an Idol, the Idol of the self, of the will, the idol of domination.

Read Part 3 here.

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The Theology of Slavoj Zizek, a Critique – Part 2

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