Upon the unfortunate albeit inevitable death of Jean Baudrillard in 2007, I needed to find a new favorite living philosopher. It took a while, but it was worth the wait. At long last, there appeared on the event horizon a guy worthy of taking up the mantle of the world's most infuriating intellectual, and, to my surprise, he wasn't even French. He was the ever-provocative Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek, beloved and reviled as "the Elvis of cultural theory."
Here are some things I believe as articulated by Zizek in his new book, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept.
What is an event?
Zizek: "An event is something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as it's foundation."
"An event is the effect that seems to exceed its causes."
Love, religious faith, political convictions are all events in this sense. For instance: "I do not fall in love for precise reasons (her lips, her smile…)—it is because I already love her that her lips, etc. attract me."
What Rumsfeld left out, or why Rummy should be playing with Play-doh, not Plato
Zizek: "If Donald Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' the threats from Saddam which we cannot even suspect, our reply should have been that the main dangers were, on the contrary, the 'unknown knowns,' the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. These 'unknown knowns' were indeed the main cause of the troubles the United States encountered in Iraq, and Rumsfeld's omission proves that he was not a true philosopher."
What happens when the Death-Star strikes & obliterates the the Earth?
Zizek: "Depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under extreme pressure or the threat of catastrophe—they already expect bad things to happen. This fact offers yet another example of the split between reality—the social universe of established customs and opinions in which we dwell—and the traumatic meaningless brutality of the Real…A 'realist' is fully immersed in ordinary reality so when the co-ordinates of this reality dissolve, his entire world breaks down…the depressive goes on as usual because she is already living in a melancholic withdrawal from reality…[The Death-Star] is the Thing—das Ding at its purest, as Heidegger would have it: the Real Thing which dissolves any symbolic frame—we see it, it is our death, we cannot do anything.
"The melancholic's stratagem: the only way to possess an object that we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost."
God as Death-Star.
Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zapffe: "Job finds himself confronted with a world ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture…What is new for Job is not God's greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance; what is new is the qualitative baseness."
Zizek: "In other words, God—the God of the Real—is das Ding, a capricious cruel master who simply has no sense of universal justice."
(asemic portrait of Slavoj Zizek)
The path to self-knowledge lies through the realm of the make-believe.
Zizek: "Fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me."
No compromise with cancer.
Jesus Christ: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Zizek: "In situations of deep crisis, an authentic division is urgently needed—a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.
Soviet apologist: "You can't make an omelet without breaking any eggs."
Panait Istrati: "All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where's this omelette of yours?"
Zizek: "The true 'breaking of eggs' is not physical violence, but the intervention into social and ideological relations which, without necessarily destroying anything or anyone, transforms the entire symbolic field."
My country 'tis of thee
Zizek: "Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, democratic rights, the duty of a society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all its members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply unacceptable and ridiculous—there is no need even to argue against, say, racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously. But then, step by step, although society continues to pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived of their substance.
"The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as obvious nonsense…one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the logic of Political Correctness: in exactly the same way that 'disabled' becomes 'physically challenged," 'torture' becomes 'enhanced interrogation technique' (and, presumably, 'rape' could become 'enhanced seduction technique'). The crucial point is that torture—brutal violence practiced by the state—was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered Politically Correct in order to protect victims from the symbolic violence of labels. These two phenomenon are two sides of the same coin.
"So what about the 'realist' argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least be talking publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us about it openly? There is only one answer: to normalize it, i.e., to lower our ethical standards. Torture saves lives? Maybe, but it loses souls for sure—and it's most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready for forsake his/her soul to save the lives of his/her countrymen."
Don't look at me I'm exposing myself!
Zizek: "It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his or her naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others."
All the World's a Stage
Zizek: "In theatre, there are occasional brutal events which awaken us to the reality of the stage. Instead of reading these gestures as attempts to break the spell of illusions and confront us with the bare Real, one should rather denounce them for what they are: the exact opposite of what they claim to be—escapes from the Real, desperate attempts to avoid the Real that transpires in (or through) the illusion itself."
The Real is only skin-deep; reality goes down to the bone
Zizek: "The notion of the Absolute Void-Substance-Ground beneath the fragile, deceptive appearances that constitute our reality is to be opposed to the notion that it is the ordinary reality that is hard, inert, and there, and it is the Absolute that is thoroughly fragile and fleeting. What is the Absolute? Something that appears to us in fleeting experiences. In such miraculous, but extremely fragile moments, another dimension transpires through our reality. As such, the Absolute is easily corroded; it all too easily slips through our fingers and must be treated as carefully as a butterfly."
My country 'tis of thee, part 2
Zizek: "The basic idea of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is to protect the citizens of the United States from (foreign) bad guys by figuring out how vulnerable some people are to terrorist 'narratives,' and then supplanting such narratives with better ones. To put it simply, DARPA endeavors to shape minds with stories. The goal is not to convince the potential terrorist through apt rhetoric or line of argument (or even plain brainwashing), but to directly intervene in his brain to make him change his mind. Ideological struggle is no longer conducted through argument or propaganda, but by means of neurobiology, i.e., by way of regulating neuronal processes in our brain. The catch is: who will decide what narratives are dangerous and, as such, deserve neurological correction?
Look into my eyes
Hegel: "The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful."
God's gotta nice ass
Zizek: "The Japanese expression bakku-shan means "a girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front. One of the lessons of the history of religion—and even more of today's experience of religion—is that the same holds for God: he may appear great when he is seen from behind and from a proper distance, but when he comes too close and we have to confront him face to face, spiritual bliss turns into horror. This destructive aspect of the divine, the brutal explosion of rage mixed with ecstatic bliss, is what Lacan aims at with his statement that gods belong to the Real. Such a traumatic encounter of a divine Thing is the Event as real.
"The problem of Judaism is precisely: how are we to keep this dimension of the divine madness, of gods as real, at a distance? The Jewish god is also the god of brutal madness—what changes is the believer's stance towards this dimension of the divine: if we get to close to it, then 'the glory of the Lord is like a devouring fire'(Exodus 24:17)."
The title of a well-known book on the Holocaust—God Died in Auschwitz—has thus to be turned around: God became alive in Auschwitz.
The true horror does not occur when we are abandoned by God, but when God comes too close to us."
Cupid knows best where to shoot the arrow
Zizek: "When you fall in love, you don't just know what you need and want and look for the one who has it. The 'miracle' of love is that you learn what you need only when you find it."
Zizek: "Because the pure past is complete, each new work rearranges its entire balance. Take Borges' precise formulation of the relationship between Kafka and the multitude of his precursors, from old Chinese authors to Robert Browning: 'Kafka's idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of these writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist…each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.' The properly dialectical solution of the dilemma of 'Is it really there, in the source, or did we only read it into the source?' is thus: it is there, but we can only perceive and state this retroactively, from today's perspective."
Don't show, tell!
Zizek: "Nowhere is the 'performative' role of retelling more palpable than in what philistines consider the most boring passages of Wagner's musical dramas, the long narratives in which the hero recapitulates what went on until that point. As Alain Badiou pointed out, these long narratives are the true sites of dramatic shift—in the course of them, we witness the narrator's profound subjective transformation. In other words, the truly New emerges through narrative, the apparently purely reproductive retelling of what happened—it is the retelling that opens up the space (the possibility) of acting in a new way.
Haiku as pure event
Basho: Old pond…
a frog jumps in
Zizek: "The three-lines-rule of a haiku poem is well-justified: the first line renders the pre-eventual situation (a calm old pond); the second line marked a cut in this inactivity, the intervention which disturbs the piece and will generate the event (a frog jumps); and the last one names the fleeting event itself (the sound of splash).
In the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil, the circle of secret policemen engaged in torturing political prisoners improvised a kind of private religion: a New Age Buddhist mixture based on the conviction that there is no reality, just a fragmented dance of illusory appearances. Along these lines we can well invent yet another haiku:
Prisoners take a shower...
my finger presses a button
The point of this improvisation is not to engage in tasteless jokes, but to make us see that a truly enlightened person should be able to see a pure event even in such terrifying circumstances. The sad lesson here is that there is no incompatibility between brutal terror and authentic poetic spirit—they can go together."
There is no Garden of Eden until we're thrown out of it
Zizek: "Evil is the gaze itself that perceives Evil everywhere around it: the gaze that sees Evil excludes itself from the social Whole it criticizes, and this exclusion is itself the formal characteristic of Evil. Hegel's point is that the Good emerges as a possibility and duty only through this primordial choice of Evil: we experience the Good when, after choosing Evil, we become aware of the utter inadequacy of our situation."
Hegel: "What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind…The reflective movement is to be taken as an absolute recoil upon itself."
Zizek: "So it is 'only in the return itself' that what we return to emerges at all—it begins to exist or to be perceived as a possibility where before there was no trace of it.
Malcolm X was following the same insight when he adopted X as his family name: he was not fighting on behalf of the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely on behalf of an X, an unknown new identity opened up by the very process of slavery which made the African roots for ever lost."
Even God gets cheated at dice
Brian Greene: "If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that he is not observing the small."
Zizek: "The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before sits environs 'take note') the discrepancy) is a way to cheat God himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: God himself doesn't control the quantum processes. Einstein was right with his famous claim 'God doesn't cheat'—what he forgot to add is that he himself can be cheated: there are micro-processes (quantum oscillations) that are not registered by the system."
Falling down enlightenment
Zizek: "The Japanese Buddhist Sakaguchi Ango criticized Buddhism for its detachment from actual life with all its passions; he proposed 'starting a new life that follows common desires.' The central notion of Ango was 'fallenness'—he encouraged students to continue to fall. Authenticity is fallenness itself: we leave behind our false Self not when we keep reality at a distance but precisely when we totally, without reserve, 'fall' into it, abandon ourselves to it. The illusion of our Self persists precisely insofar as we perceive reality as something 'out there,' outside 'me here.'"