Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fragile Absolute by Slavoj Zizek

Or Why Is The Christian Legacy Is Worth Fighting For?

A partial summary in my own words.

For Zizek Christ is a 'ridiculous and/or traumatic scandal' who unplugs us from the entire socio-symbolic network and throws the' balanced circuit of the universe off the rails, 'radical' in perhaps the most completely primordial sense, representing ( in the ancient world at least) the power of unheard-of negativity. He gets this in part from Luke 14:26- ' If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and mother, his brothers and sisters- yes, even his own life- he cannot be my discipline'. This is what true charity- loving one's neighbor- entails: an erasure of all social distinctions, exploding the fabric which comprises the 'organic community' of contemporary New Age Spiritual Practice.

This is supposed to suspend the vicious superego dialectic-cycle of Law and transgressive desire. "Real Muscle", as Jacques Lacan would have it.

As far as I can discover, John Calvin only addressed Luke 14:26 directly in his essay on The Harmony of the Gospel where, it seems to me, he tries to soften the blow:

As it is exceedingly harsh, and is contrary to natural feelings, to make enemies of those who ought to have been in closest alliance with us, so Christ now says that we cannot be his disciples on any other condition. He does not indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety. Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due to Christ be not overpowered by human affection. For if even among men,in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have stronger claims than others, it is shameful that all should not be deemed inferior to Christ alone. And certainly we do not consider sufficiently, or with due gratitude, what it is to be a disciple of Christ, if the excellence of this rank be not sufficient to subdue all the affections of the flesh. The phrase employed by Luke is more harsh, if any man doth not hate his father and mother, but the meaning is the same, “If the love of ourselves hinder us from following Christ, we must resist it, courageously," as Paul says,

what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ, for

whom I suffered the loss of all things, (Philippians 3:7,8.)

Of course with Calvin 'Heaven' is not a realm that is distinct from material existence, nor 'soul' an entity divorced from passage of air through the body or 'eternity' anything other than a potential of the present. And he took a scant view of the idea that salvation was a matter individual will or works, however much in our witnesses we might regard them as other than signs of grace. No, as we see in this passage, to be "victorious in Christ" is to have and be nothing, a benefit we can only expect to obtain by the sheer wonder-working and entirely inscrutable Providence of God set down in the Beginning once and for all time.

There seems to be a delicious irony in this view, of which 'neo-Calvinists' other than Slavoj Zizejk apparently have no clue.


Here's an example of Zizek's drift in his own words:

Schelling wrote about the ‘infinite melancholy’ of all living nature, about how there is an infinite pain and craving in nature, since nature is caught in an unresolved absolute tension, torn from within, unable to ‘reach’ or define itself- which is why the emergence of logos , of the spoken word, in man is not simply an excess that disturbs the balanced natural circuit but an answer to this infinite pain and deadlock of living nature, a resolution of its unbearable tension; it is as if living nature itself was secretly pointing towards, waiting and longing for, the emergence of logos as its redemption.

Before we dismiss this notion as a crazy teleological speculation that belongs to the deservedly forgotten realm of Romantic Naturphilosophie , we should nevertheless take a closer look at it. Do we not encounter something similar in historical experience?

Let us recall Fellini’s Satyricon, with its unique depiction of Ancient Roman hedonistic figures permeated by an infinite sadness. Fellini himself claimed that, precisely as a Christian, he wanted to make a film about a universe in which Christianity is yet to come, from which the notion of Christian redemption is totally absent. Does the strange sadness, a kind of fundamental melancholy, of these pagan figures not, then, bear witness to the fact that they somehow already have the premonition that the true God will soon reveal himself, and that they were born just a little bit too early, so that they cannot be redeemed?

And is this not also the fundamental lesson of the Hegelian dialectics of alienation: we are not dealing with the Paradise which is then lost due to some fatal intrusion – there is already paradisiacal satisfaction ( in the satisfaction of the ‘naïve’ organic community) something suffocating, a longing for fresh air, for an opening that would break the unbearable constraint; and this longing introduced into Paradise and unbearable infinite Pain, a desire to break out – life in Paradise is always pervaded by an infinite melancholy.

Perhaps this paradox also accounts for the ultimate paradox of melancholy: melancholy is not primarily directed at the paradisiacal past of organic balanced Wholeness which was lost due to some catastrophe, it is not sadness caused by this loss; melancholy proper, rather, designates the attitude of those who are still in Paradise but are already longing to break out of it: of those who, although still in a closed universe, already possess a vague premonition of another dimension which is just out of reach, since they came a little bit early…

Far from entangling us in speculative teleological nonsense, such reading offers the only way of avoiding the naïve evolutionary approach which sees historical development as the gradual disintegration of primordial organic forms of life ( from Gemeinschaft to Geselschaft). On the contrary, it is the evolutionist notion of progress which is inherently teleological, since it conceives of the higher stages as the result of the deployment of the inner potential of the lower stages. In contrast to such an evolutionist notion of progress, one should stick to the notion that the New emerges in order to resolve an unbearable tension in the Old, and as such is already ‘present’ in the Old in a negative mode, in the guise of an infinite sadness and longing…

In a properly historical perspective as opposed to evolutionist historicism, the past is not simply past, but bears within it its proper Utopian promise of future Redemption: in order to understand a past epoch properly, it is not sufficient to take into account the historical conditions out of which it grew – one has also has to take into account the Utopian hopes of a Future that were betrayed and crushed by it – that which was ‘negated’, that which did not happen – so that the past historical reality was the way it was.

To conceive the French Revolution, one has to focus also on the Utopian hopes of liberation that were crushed by its final outcome, the common bourgeois reality - and the same goes for the October Revolution. Thus we are dealing not with the idealist or spiritualist teleology, but with the dialectical notion of a historical epoch whose ‘concrete’ definition has to include its crushed potentials, which were inherently ‘negated’ by its reality…

What the proper historical stance ( as opposed to historicism) ‘relativizes’ is not the past (always distorted by our present point of view) but, paradoxically, the present itself - our present can be conceived only as the outcome ( not of what actually happened in the past, but also) of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past. In other words, it is not only – as Foucault like to emphasize, in a Nietzschean mode – that every history of the past is ultimately the ‘ontology of the present’, that we always perceive our past within the horizon of our present preoccupations, that in dealing with the past we in effect dealing with the ghosts of the past whose resuscitation enables us to confront our present dilemmas. It is also that we, the ‘actual’ present historical agents, have to conceive ourselves as the materialization of the ghosts of past generations, as the stage in which these past generation retroactively resolve their deadlocks.

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