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Continental Tales

Žižek on Love

Kathleen O’Dwyer asks what Slavoj Žižek means by ‘love thy neighbour’.

The postmodern psychoanalyst-philosopher Slavoj Žižek is noted for his flamboyant style, his embrace of contradiction, and his often controversial exposure of the dualities, deceptions and disavowals which characterize contemporary culture. Reflecting on these aspects of Žižek’s work, his biographer Tony Myers states that “Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher. He is, however, no ordinary philosopher, for he thinks and writes in such a recklessly entertaining fashion, he constantly risks making philosophy enjoyable.” (Slavoj Žižek, p.1, 2004). What makes Žižek different from ‘ordinary philosophers’, according to Myers, is his persistent sense of wonder and amazement, which he expresses in a limitless questioning of everything: “With all the guile of a child asking his parents why the sky is blue, Žižek questions everything that passes for wisdom about who we are, what we are doing and why we do it.” (p.3). As an astute commentator on historical and contemporary disasters and difficulties, Žižek examines political, social and individual issues with a combination of philosophical reflection and cultural analysis. One such issue is the concept of neighbourly love.

Žižek’s analysis of the Christian injunction ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself’ queries both its possibility and its expediency. His argument centres on the assertions that the universal love so promoted disavows that which is unlovable in human nature, and that love must in some sense be an autonomous decision (simply, that love cannot be commanded).

Love Thy Non-Neighbour

In his analysis of Christ’s dictum, Žižek asks ‘who is the neighbour?’, and he turns to Jacques Lacan’s answer that “the neighbour is the Real.” Yet the Real of the neighbour includes all his/her traumatic vulnerability, frailty, obscenity and fallibility. Žižek thereby concludes that the injunction to ‘love thy neighbour’ and correlative preaching about equality, tolerance and universal love “are ultimately strategies to avoid encountering the neighbour” (Conversations with Žižek, p.72, 2004). To Žižek, idealistic proclamations of love actually preclude the possibility of loving the neighbour as a Real, traumatic, inaccessible other. In his depiction of the neighbour as a ‘concretization of the Real’, Žižek argues that access to the Real is therefore not impossible – it is to be found through the neighbour – but is traumatic and threatening. Encountering the Real via the neighbour confronts us with the raw and vulnerable nature of human being, and such an encounter is often avoided in favour of more acceptable and idealistic generalisations of humanity. Jacques Derrida concurs with this when he states that “The measure is given by the act, by the capacity of loving in act… living is living with. But every time, it is only one person living with another”, concluding with the assertion that “A finite being could not possibly be present in act to too great a number. There is no belonging or friendly community that is present, and first present to itself, in act, without election and without selection” (The Politics of Friendship, p.21, 2005). That is, ‘friendly communities’ pick their members with care, to screen out the unsuitable or unlovable.

To Žižek, the avoidance of an encounter with the singular and concrete experience of the neighbour is propelled by an aversion to one’s own vulnerability and lack, which might be mirrored in the other. This avoidance explains the popularity of humanitarian causes, which lies in their inherent paradox, whereby one can ‘love’ from a distance, without getting personally involved. He says:

“It is easy to love the idealized figure of a poor, helpless neighbour, the starving African or Indian, for example; in other words, it is easy to love one’s neighbour as long as he stays far enough from us, as long as there is a proper distance separating us. The problem arises at the moment when he comes too near us, when we start to feel his suffocating proximity – at this moment when the neighbour exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred.” (Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, Slavoj Žižek, p.8, 2001).

The proximity of love and hate, the imperceptible slippage from one to the other which characterizes so much of human existence, is a recurring theme reflected throughout literature. As Lacan states, “not to know hatred in the least is not to know love in any way either… there is no love without hate.” (On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, p.89, 1999).

Ethical certainty evades the responsibility of ethical reflection; hence the popularity of empty catch-phrases preaching moralistic convictions such as ‘the brotherhood of man’, ‘universal peace’, and ‘justice for all’. Yet concrete situations subvert such clichés even in the midst of their proclamation. In his critique of the ideology of human rights, Žižek points out the duplicity involved in campaigns which disguise their motivation behind a veil of pseudo-love for the other: “charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation.” (on-line quote, 2006).

In his analysis of relationships, Žižek offers a careful critique of the ethics of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), and particularly Levinas’ insistence on the responsibility to answer the call of the other [person]: “Levinas asserts the relation to my neighbour, my unconditional responsibility for him, as the true terrain of ethical activity,” Žižek says in The Neighbour, p.146, 2005. Žižek asserts that Levinas’ ethics is limited by its selective conceptualization of what it is to be human:

“The limitation of Levinas is not simply that of a Eurocentrist who relies on too narrow a definition of what is human, a definition that secretly excludes non-Europeans as ‘not fully human’. What Levinas fails to include in the scope of ‘human’ is, rather, the inhuman itself, a dimension which eludes the face-to-face relationship between human beings” (On Belief , p.111, 2006).

He asks if Levinas, with his call for an ethical response to the other, is not guilty of the ‘gentrification’ of the neighbour, by excluding everything that is deemed ‘inhuman’, everything which does not fit into the social world. Yet Žižek’s emphasis on the inhuman or the monstrous as inherently constitutive of being human is opposed by Richard Kearney as being too alarmist: “The danger of Žižek’s approach is the risk that our entire culture becomes little more than a symptom of an incurable postmodern pathology [meaning, a culture which redefines its meanings until it’s sick],” he says in Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Ideas of Otherness, p.99, 2003. Yet an exclusion of what is deemed inhuman monstrosity from a vision of human nature must raise fundamental questions. By what and by whose criteria is the distinction of ‘inhuman’ made? Has this distinction changed in different historical periods and for different cultural experiences? These questions contain at least the seeds of their answers, in that they may elicit diverse and ambiguous responses, and so suggest a denial of the universality of ‘human’ which is presumed for the sake of the opposition, human/inhuman.

Nietzsche’s critique of morality – of the hypocrisy inherent in disavowing selected aspects of human nature, and his reversal of the subsequent false dualities – is cited by Žižek in his argument that definitions of what it is to be human often exclude the inhuman as belonging to a radically different other. He echoes Nietzsche’s assertion that we are ‘human, all too human’:

“‘He is not human’ means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while ‘he is inhuman’ means something thoroughly different, namely, that he is neither simply human nor simply inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity’, is inherent to being-human.” (The Neighbour, p.160).

The Inhumanity Of Humanity

Throughout his work, Žižek cites the experience of the Holocaust as an inescapable confirmation of human evil and deception. The aggression, brutality, cruelty – the ‘inhuman’ acts which were performed by the Nazis and their supporters – make it impossible to deny the reality of evil in the world, and inevitably causes us to pose questions regarding what human beings are capable of. As the poet W.H. Auden reflects in The Cave of Making (1960), “We shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler, / trust ourselves ever again: / we know that, subjectively, / all is possible.” Yet the ideological framework which encompassed the atrocities of the Holocaust was based on ‘love’ of one’s nation, defence against the enemy, and loyalty to ideals and aspirations. Žižek offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of this perplexing historical event, whereby the ideology was founded on the fantasy of ‘the one supposed to know’ – the ultimate expert, often represented in the master signifier of ‘God’ – the analyst, or in this case, the Führer. The success of the illusion depended on the simultaneous depiction of a threatening other – in this case the Jew, onto whom was projected everything which posed a threat to the realisation of the fantasy. As Žižek says, “There is no ideology that does not come into being without asserting itself in the guise of one ‘truth’ against another” (The Žižek Reader, p.54, 1999). Nietzsche explains it thus: “People whom we cannot tolerate, we try to make suspect” (Human, All Too Human, p.243, 1878). Simultaneously, the fantasy that another (the expert) held the key to truth and liberation resulted in a suspension of personal responsibility and autonomy. Thus, when confronted with the reality of their crimes, Nazis often gave the excuse that they were merely following orders or doing their duty, and were therefore not responsible. They might even say they did what they did out of ‘love’ – love of country, cause, leader – and so they cannot be held accountable. Hindsight, historical perspective, and the safety of temporal distance enable us to reject such denials, and demand justice and retribution for what is deemed ‘inhuman’ behaviour. Yet the danger of complacent self-righteousness and moralistic superiority which might underlie this judgement is exposed by Žižek as he reminds us that the perpetrators of these inhuman acts were not a separate species, or a category of ‘sub-human’, but were in fact ordinary human beings, living their lives within a historical context: “it is all too easy to dismiss the Nazis as inhuman and bestial – what if the problem with the Nazis was precisely that they remained ‘human, all too human’?” he asks in On Belief, p.42, 2002. They were not some monstrous other, radically different from us – they were the same as us in that they were human beings. Hence, the portrayal of the Nazis as monstrously non-human bears at least this similarity to the Nazi’s psychological projection of evil non-humanity onto the Jews.

The Holocaust is commonly held to be the pinnacle of evil in the Western world, but it has its equivalents throughout history, and throughout the world, as Martin Buber reminds us: “I do not think any basic change took place in the human race when the Nazis came into power … it is a question of proportion, not of basic content… similar brutalities have occurred before in history” (Encounter with Martin Buber, Aubrey Hobes, p.146, 1972). Contemporary events await the analysis of history, but inevitably portray similar dichotomies and contradictions. The ideal of ‘the free world’, as embodied by the West, and especially vocally by the United States, finds its expression in selected codes concerning what it is to be human. But what does not fit the Western norm is excluded, whether it is the East, the terrorist, or the Muslim. The other is conveniently scapegoated as the threat to all that is held dear. Paradoxically, when the ‘free world’ is confronted with incontestable evidence of its own brutality and terrorism, committed in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’ – rendition, the scenes at Guantanamo Bay, and others – there is an aversion to the reality that this evil is perpetrated by ordinary, recognizable men and women of the Western world; as Žižek reminds us, “what shocks us in others we ourselves also do in a way.” (on-line text, 2001).

Love Thy Muslim Neighbour

The confrontation with evil understandably evinces a rejection of the incomprehensible, monstrous other, but Žižek suggests that a more courageous response is necessary. In his reflections on the 9/11 bombings, Žižek urges comprehension of the political, economic, and ideological realities which preceded the event, and he warns against the dangers implicit in one-dimensional oppositions of concepts of right/wrong, good/evil, and crime/punishment. To support his plea, Žižek quotes from Derrida’s speech referring to the World Trade Center attacks. Derrida said: “My unconditional compassion, addressed to the victims of September 11, does not prevent me from saying it loudly: with regard to this crime, I do not believe that anyone is politically guiltless.” Žižek responds that “this self-relating, this inclusion of oneself in the picture, is the only true ‘infinite justice’.” (The Universal Exception, p.287, 2007). So now: “ ‘Love thy neighbour!’ means ‘Love the Muslims!’ OR IT MEANS NOTHING AT ALL!” (Žižek on-line, 2001). To confront the Real dimensions of 9/11 and other traumatic events, the simple objectification of the ‘monstrous’ other must be subverted: “Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence.” (ibid). Here, Žižek is rejecting easy polarities of good and evil, and is calling for a more comprehensive understanding of human nature which recognizes ourselves even in ‘inhuman’ people.

This argument is also central to the work of Julia Kristeva as explored in Strangers to Ourselves (1991), where she relates the drive to demonise the other back to an unconscious process whereby we externalise the ‘foreigner’. She says: “Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity… by recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself.” (Strangers to Ourselves, p.1). Kristeva also looks to psychoanalysis as an aid to transcending the projection of the foreigner/other as a monster, and she recalls that Freud did not talk about foreigners, but about the uncanny strangeness of ourselves: “The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. [Yet] If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners. Therefore Freud does not talk about them. The ethics of psychoanalysis implies a politics: it would involve a cosmopolitanism of a new sort that, cutting across governments, economies, and markets, might work for a mankind whose solidarity is founded on the consciousness of its unconscious – desiring, destructive, fearful, empty, impossible.” (Strangers to Ourselves, p.192).

In highlighting the hypocrisy and contradiction sometimes implicit in proclamations of neighbourly love, Žižek paradoxically does not reject the concept. Rather, like Kristeva, he looks to the psychoanalytic insights of Freud and Lacan as he endeavours to unravel the complexities of the obstacles to intersubjectivity, and the possibilities of love within these perplexities.

© Dr Kathleen O’Dwyer 2010

Kathleen O’Dwyer is a scholar, teacher and author with a particular interest in the relevance of philosophy in everyday life. Her book The Possibility of Love: An Interdisciplinary Analysis (2009) is a philosophical investigation into the complex experience of love.

• This is an edited version of an article which is also appearing in the journal Lobstick. Please go to lobstick.com.

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