Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Slavoj Žižek delivers a sermon in NY Times

The renowned Slovenian philosopher published an article Defenders of the Faith in NY Times Sunday, apparently stating our goal regarding the world peace or perhaps even condition humaine itself, should be "restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace".

Unfortunately, Žižek does not tell how can atheism as such actually be our only chance. Surely the current uncertainty regarding islamist violence and fundamentalist terrorism wouldn’t just stop by allegiance to “atheism as European legacy”. Furthermore, Žižek states that

»Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. […] More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.”

Since we have become accustomed to Žižek’s provocative style, the substance is not very surprising either. What strikes me though is how patently Marxist Žižek sounds, preaching about “religion, […] the wellspring of murderous violence around the world.” As if a motto “religion the opium for the people,” wasn't completely discredited in an era Avbelj writes about in his post on Slobodan Milošević and socialist Yugoslavia.

Žižek, dubbed “the great joker” by one Slovenian observer, misses the fundamental dialectic concerning religious experience and reason. More than this, his focus on atheism as a key part of Western, or at least European legacy appears artificial and even forced. For it is not atheism but rationalism that is a key Western invention, intimately linked with a phenomenon of secular society that gave rise to humanism. The Greek ideal was rational insight into reality, and the West never renounced it. However, our society is of course also fundamentally indebted to Judaism and Christianity, since this is where we received a notion of a person as an autonomous entity. Both faith and reason represent the core of Western culture and roots of Europe in particular. This is Europe's identity.

In a relation between Glauben und Wissen the reason limits and defines faith in a way that prevents its degradation into fundamentalism thus affirming the Augustinian formula fides quaerens intellectum, ‘faith seeking understanding’. On the other hand, function of religion is not limited solely to the field of pure religious experience but provides also for the irrational insight and for the set of values that lead the reason, since reason alone is morally blind and as such simply cannot answer the most urgent questions of modernity (such as those arising in bioethics, concerning advanced deterioration of the environment, or the fatal use of weapons of mass destruction). Atheism too, of course can be a source of meaning, but to claim its superiority in an apparent attempt to undermine or even demonize faith sounds utterly outdated and anachronistic.

There is one thing however, that does credit to Slavoj Žižek: He didn’t choose the simplest way to proclaim his revelation. It would be easier to promote atheism as “modern Europe's most precious legacy,” in one of the main European newspapers. I’m sure Žižek has access to all of them. It takes a true believer for this kind of proselytism in a leading conservative newspaper in a country where overwhelming majority declares itself religious.

16 Comments:

At 11:30 PM, Blogger Matej Avbelj said...

Full Article is available here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/opinion/12zizek.html?th&emc=th

It is one of the least coherent articles that I have ever read and it is amazing to me that such a "notorious" philosopher can commit that many categorical mistakes.

For if one thinks that the society where atheism trumps upon all the other "comprehensive doctrines" (secular or non-secular), is a liberal society (as Mladina is supposed to be), one should go back to Rawls and learn about liberalism from scratch.

What is at stake with Zizek is a philosophy of nothing, of relativism, of irresponsibility and contradictions. It is a complete emptiness of anything of worth... This is the philosophy of the sad hero of our even more unfortunate time who could not care less for where the world goes and what happens around and with us. It is the philosophy of a mere and pure bluff which can be at any moment superseded by 2 minutes of "average(?)" movie... To use philosopher's own words.

 
At 11:50 AM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

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At 11:51 AM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Leaving Zizek aside, Miha contends that "since reason alone is morally blind and as such simply cannot answer the most urgent questions of modernity (such as those arising in bioethics, concerning advanced deterioration of the environment, or the fatal use of weapons of mass destruction). Atheism too, of course can be a source of meaning, but to claim its superiority in an apparent attempt to undermine or even demonize faith sounds utterly outdated and anachronistic." Is areason without any moral connation? Miha implicilty submits that Christanity and Judism is Europe most precious legacy. Is it in reality? Certainly not. How can Europe subscribe under henious religious crimes committed in Europe and outside in Europe (mostly in Latin America) in the name of Catholic church in last centuries.

Who is behind growing reluctance to build a mosk in Ljubljana. Various (cultural, political and even architectural reasons) were given, but nobody has guts to say aloud the real reason for opposition, which is rooted in deep provincialism and narrow-mindness in Slovenia. Also this is a question of what kind of Slovenia we want for future generations - free and open-minded or backward minded in ideals which are disappearing.

 
At 1:55 PM, Blogger Matej Avbelj said...

This was the best passage in Movrin's contribution:

"On the other hand, function of religion is not limited solely to the field of pure religious experience but provides also for the irrational insight and for the set of values that lead the reason, since reason alone is morally blind and as such simply cannot answer the most urgent questions of modernity"

Reason alone is morally blind. Really good. I'm looking fwd to discuss this with you, since it is of my great interest how the religious comprehensive doctrines penetrate into morality and reason and then into law. Its trully fascinating subject and if you had any literature to guide me in explicating my interests and intuitions, I would be most grateful for it.

All in all, beer in Ljubljana is approaching and the inevitable debates as well.

PS. Jernej do you want to say that Catholic religion is behind the opposition to LJ mosque? If those who oppose it ground their claims in Catholic religion arguments, they are simply wrong. Since, if one religion in a liberal democratic society opposes the construction of religious objects of the other religious groups, then its own religious objects and buildings are equally objectionable and illegitimate. This is not what Christianity says or does.

Finally architectural reasons are not so skewed after all: nobody can build whatever he or she wants, neither you nor me, nor Catholic church, nor Islamic community in Slovenia. I guess, this goes without saying, and above all without sarcasm.

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Matej, you say that "Finally architectural reasons are not so skewed after all". I am not defender of rights of Muslim community in Ljubljana or rest of Slovenia for that fact but ask them or yourself for how long they trying to find a "right" (in the meaning of Ljubljana municipal authorites explaination) place in Ljubljana to build a mosk. The anwser is fourteen years - more or less since independence. It is not me being sarcastical but the whole situation regarding mosk in Ljubljana is sarcastical. That plainly show what kind of provincialism, narrow-mindness andabove all disrespect for religious freedom is still present in Ljubljana

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger Miha Movrin said...

About morally blind reason: according to the fact/value distinction conjecture, no states of affairs in the world can be said to be values. Furthermore evaluative judgments are not pure statements of fact.

This non-factuality of value leaves us according to some versions of existentialists ethics in a position of RADICAL FREEDOM TO CHOOSE. But as Weiler assesses the result of this highly theoretical debate is actually of no importance. Why? Because overwhelming majority of opinion makers, of the media and especially political elites believe already in fundamental relativism of this world or better in above mentioned radical freedom of choice. So relativism or plainly speaking laissez faire principle is a fact around here anyway, no matter where the fact/value debate will lead us.

Two radically free choices were of course Auschwitz and GULAG so fancy theories are not really needed to realize actual state of our "entzauberten Welt" to use Weber's expression. Another moral choice was Hiroshima. To make it plain: blind reason built the bomb and blind reason dropped it.

And Jernej, since you mentioned mosque problem: Muslims in Slovenia have sought a building permit for 35 years, not just 14 as you suggest. And maybe it’s time to tell who has been in office in city hall throughout these 35 years. Some very tangible people with some very tangible politics, and not samoe abstract ethereal “provincialism, narrow-mindness andabove all disrespect for religious freedom” you mention. So if you decided to show “gut to say aloud the real reason for opposition” as you nicely put it, you could start by naming some names. Otherwise, someone not familiar with this mosque story could get a wrong impression from reading your comments, that this has been some major Opus Dei conspiracy right from the start.

 
At 10:08 AM, Blogger Matej Avbelj said...

To clarify my architectural point: in all due respect of principle of proportionality one can not plausibly expect to build a building (being a mosque or a new-Kolizej for example) that would completely change the skyline and appereance of the city.

 
At 12:51 PM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Miha says "So if you decided to show “gut to say aloud the real reason for opposition” as you nicely put it, you could start by naming some names." Miha you know where are reason for opposition. They may be found in inequality and xenophobia in Slovene society. This may be explained by sixty years in abusive totalitarian system but also beyond that - in centuries spent under intolerant Austrian and German powers.

I do not follow your argument that
current state of affairs in Ljubljana or Slovenia may be explained by black/white argument like in has been used in thelast ten years by all Slovene political parties. And I have never suggested that construction of mosque was plot of Catholic Church. And to say that one should not support the contsruction of mosque just because left-wing (forme communist) parties right now argue for its constructionm (or at least not against), whereas incumbent Slovene democratic party tried to collect signatures for holding a referendum on that, it just ridiculus. This only of part of story. Another one is refuggee policy in Slovenia, which in practice contrary to all international standards. That is why I again submit the same argument below.

Majority of Slovenes still lives and thinks in the box and that is why I again put forward the provincalism and narrow-mindness of our beautiful country. Apart from accomplished independence, outspoken patriotism and membership in international organisations, is there really any difference between Slovene society in 1906 and 2006?

 
At 12:52 PM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Miha says "So if you decided to show “gut to say aloud the real reason for opposition” as you nicely put it, you could start by naming some names." Miha you know where there are reason for opposition. They may be found in inequality and xenophobia in Slovene society. This may be explained by sixty years spent in abusive totalitarian system but also beyond that - in centuries spent under intolerant Austrian and German powers.

I do not follow your argument that
current state of affairs in Ljubljana or Slovenia may be explained by black/white argument like in has been used in thelast ten years by all Slovene political parties. And I have never suggested that construction of mosque was plot of Catholic Church as Matej asks. And to say that one should not support the contsruction of mosque just because left-wing (forme communist) parties right now argue for its constructionm (or at least not against), whereas incumbent Slovene democratic party tried to collect signatures for holding a referendum on that, it just ridiculus. This only of part of story. Another one is refuggee policy in Slovenia, which in practice contrary to all international standards. That is why I again submit the same argument below.

Majority of Slovenes still lives and thinks in the box and that is why I again put forward the provincalism and narrow-mindness of our beautiful country. Apart from accomplished independence, outspoken patriotism and membership in international organisations, is there really any difference between Slovene society in 1906 and 2006?

 
At 5:17 PM, Blogger Luka Lisjak said...

I'm afraid the post misses much of Žižek's point.

First of all, I find a little bit odd for someone to critize Žižek for "missing the fundamental dialectic concerning religious experience and reason" ... Had the author of the post bothered to carefully read any of Žižek's book ("The Fragile Absolute" is but an example), he would have discovered that Žižek spent much of his philosofical career "analysing the fundamental dialectic concerning religious experience and reason"; I believe we can forgive him if he found the pages of the New York Times not the most appropriate place to summarize those analyzes, can't we?

The article in the NYT is not about the relationship between reason and faith (BTW, in his books, Žižek goes even further, by questioning the foundation of these notions themselves); what Žižek in fact argues is:

1) that only atheism can (in the current situation) serve as the universal standpoint that allows different particular religious views within itself (in Hegelian language, that's called "the identity of identity and non-identity")

2)that - and I think I may as well quote him on this, because he's extremely clear- "respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth."

So, when you criticize someone's point of view, it is common decency to read him carelfully first. Doing so, you will avoid to be stroken by "how patently Marxist Žižek sounds, preaching about “religion, […] the wellspring of murderous violence around the world.”, because you'll see that the says how " Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world", etc.

Žižek is often called "the great joker", the "commediant philosopher": it is much of his fault; but only because of the way he delivers his thoughts, while its content is almost always extremely revealing and relevant to the current situation. By dismissing him too easily, not bothering to carefully examine what he actually says, you make what we Slovenes call a "bear favour" to yourself: instead of beinga able to respond to the point, you miss it completely by sticking to the irrelevant of the article.

Pa brez zamere.

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger Miha Movrin said...

Žižek dismisses religions with the following assertion, which was quoted correctly in my post: »Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow.”

Furthermore, he claims that Dostoyevsky's classical argument on fundamental link between religious imagination and ethics »couldn't have been more wrong”. According to Žižek it’s the other way round: “If God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted”.

In my post and in subsequent comments I claimed that Dostoevsky’s argument is basically right, I defended the view that one way to limit and also guide the reason is faith. And vice versa: faith has to be limited and defined by reason. On the contrary Žižek proposes restoration of »the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies« as »our only chance for peace«, since religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world.

According to Žižek, atheistic legacy demands that Islam is submitted to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis. It is the only way to show real respect to a Muslim. Žižek certainly thinks that Mladina's publication of the infamous cartoons was this kind of ruthless but just analysis. Therefore analysis must not only be ruthless but it can be utterly disrespectful too (although »a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy«). Anyhow, ultimately insults are allowed, at least when Mladina is in question.

This actual disrespect for other comprehensive doctrines as Avbelj rightly observes is something that is fundamentally undemocratic. Indeed, Mr. Luka Lisjak competently expounds mysterious meaning of Žižek’s complex journalism, otherwise utterly beyond the grasp of common readers, who are not familiar with Žižek's opus magnum, perhaps not even with famed Fragile Absolute: "Only atheism can (in the current situation) serve as the universal standpoint that allows different particular religious views within itself," Lisjak interprets. I could not explain Žižek's point better myself.

In theory designed like that there can be no room for religious feelings neither for those of majority nor for those of minority – everybody is leveled to the high pitch of "atheist legacy." So Žižek’s politea rejects the notion of classical secular society as we know it, namely society of Rawl’s political liberalism which does not subscribe to any particular Weltanschauung. In a liberal society no comprehensive doctrine, either religious or non-religious has a privileged position. In liberal democracy no comprehensive doctrine, be it Tibetan Buddhism, Atheism or Catholicism can claim a position of the "universal standpoint" within which other doctrines are allowed.

Žižek's view of course is fundamentally undemocratic. Žižek's himself would not be very upset by this denotation since he never claimed he was a democrat. But "we, the people of 1989," to use T.G. Ash's term, know better. Drago Jančar said it best: perhaps people of Central and Eastern Europe do not know what democracy is, but we certainly know what democracy isn't. So when we read about "atheism as universal standpoint" we first think of People's Republic of Albania, that in 1967 became the world's first officially atheist country. So in Albania, when atheism became "universal standpoint" in 1967, places of worship were closed, church property was confiscated, religious services were banned. I'm sure Mr. Lisjak will protest with indignation seeing such a crude analogy. And I'm sure he will protest too when I mention that Catholicism once too was a "universal standpoint" already. It happened in Spain, during the days of reconquista. And we had such an universal standpoint in SFR Yugoslavia also, where officially propagated dialectic materialism factually suppressed both Catholicism, orthodox church, Islam and decadent liberalism respectively.

This is why I asserted not atheism, but rationalism and secular society are true achievements of modernity, since they enabled full development of European humanism. On the other hand atheism is just another comprehensive doctrine, which in it's own right can certainly be a source of meaning (at least to Žižek et consortes), which is precisely the reason why it can never claim a position of "universal standpoint".

But it's the other way around in Žižek’s or perhaps Lisjak's ideal Republic: here atheism is a universal standpoint where every religion is invited to cast away its atavistic (NB: ever emerging!) violent nature, its superstitions and its exploitive domination. In Žižek's republic the faithful must take responsibility for their beliefs.

So with Žižek's self styled defence of atheistic faith the “scientific discoveries” of dialectic materialism regarding the superiority of atheistic dogma are returning to the world stage in sheep's clothes. And as history repeats itself as a farce, so the dogma returns with a joker. But the joker is not telling a joke, he is delivering an old sermon. The sermon starts with familiar words of love and tolerance: “Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence…”

 
At 11:04 AM, Blogger s.umek said...

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At 11:19 AM, Blogger s.umek said...

First of all, "this is far from the liberal thought" (as my friend already said) to describe Slavoj Žižek as a philosopher (if we understand this notion in Socrates' definition).

Nevertheless, Mr. Žižek´s argument "that only atheism can serve as the universal standpoint" is ridiculous. The atheism is not value free; it is the philosophy of rights culture, mentioned as "the solution" when man can not fix eyes on the sky. It is the philosophy of human almightiness but in fact it is the result of human pauperism.

Atheism can never protect man against himself and his rights. Therefore, there is no reason for not using genetic engineering or even better for not using atomic weapons for resolving intercultural conflicts.

Europe is becoming an isolated island in the world; on the international conference in Vienna (in year 1995 or 1996) that was about the relationship between modern concept of human rights, European intellectuals remained isolated. The intellectuals from all over the world (even North America) were staying on the point: there is no civilization without religion in spirituality, and even more: the aggressive European interpretation of the human rights was recognized as the threat to the humankind. Political philosophy is struggling to discover the legal concept to protect man against its own egoism. There are some traces in the concept of communitarism.

Atheism means running away from The Truth. If that is the solution for making peace, what I really doubt, than we are entering into the era of only one "truth": There is no Truth!"

God helps us all!

 
At 10:50 PM, Blogger Luka Lisjak said...

I don't reember saying I agree with Žižek's (first) point. In fact, I find it extremely problematic. I just wanted to defend his article from unjustified criticism, because I believe it to contain some quite relevant points. (Which we can accept as such without necessariliy agreeing with them.)

In regard to the question of the "universal standpoint", Žižek always claimed in his books that the core of every political battle is always the fight to determine which standpoint will be recognized as the universal one (or, in Marx's own words, "which will be the universal colour through which all others will be seen as shades"). There is no position from which we can subsumise the whole society: and that's exately why every particular discourse wants to assume this "empty throne of universality".

And that's exactely what Žižek is doing in this article: he's taking a political stand by advocating atheism ("restoring its dignity" in his words). As you noticed it corectly yourself, he does this in a highly religious Nation, where atheism has never enjoyed the same "good name" that it has (and it still does) in Europe. And doing this, he offers some interesting points that are not to be dismissed even if we don't agree with the author's "Weltanschaung".

Furthermore, I don't think there's anything like "Žižek's ideal Republic". Žižek is not speaknig from a political and/or institutional point of view, but from an intellectual one. He does not and can not prescribe ways of actions, but only metods of (personal intellectual)judgement. And here, he claims (and I agree on that one completely), we cannot elevate tolerance as the highest value, but we must stick to what we think is true: even if we offend somebody (he is very consequent on that: he once praised Pope John Paul II. unshakable ethic stand on conservative issues like contraception, abortion, divorce etc. against the Dalai Lama's "relativism"). But -and this is the central point- everybody must take responsability for his believes: and Žižek implies that religious persons (just as stalinists) are more likely to avoid accepting this responsability by transfering it to the Big Other (God's will, etc.). THAT is his point. And I don't think it's completely senseless; do you?

And just as a footnote: Žižek is an excellent philosopher. I don't think anyone who has a minimum of "philosophic touch" can deny that. And even a conservative reader can find some very useful stuff in his books, if only he's prepared to approach them without pigheadedness ... Trust me ;)

 
At 10:54 PM, Blogger Luka Lisjak said...

BTW, great blog.

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger Miha Movrin said...

Luka Lesjak commented: “But -and this is the central point- everybody must take responsability for his believes: and Žižek implies that religious persons (just as stalinists) are more likely to avoid accepting this responsability by transfering it to the Big Other (God's will, etc.). THAT is his point. And I don't think it's completely senseless; do you?”

A good remark. It's exactly the essence of my criticism of Žižek. This kind of Žižek's psychoanalysis lingo is to me, at least in relation to this question, more or less artificial and without sound basis. I argued from the beginning that it's Dostoyevsky who is basically right, that it is the faith that guides and helps the reason to except the responsibility for its actions. In contrast to Žižek I also really think that »Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds”.

This is of course an argument, that sounds “increasingly hollow” to Žižek. I claim that fundamentalism is indeed a perversion of faith, that religious fundamentalism and extremism are simply a degradation of faith into complete nonsense, which can occur only in absence of reason, not because of some internal defect of religion itself (you mention supposed inclination toward transferring of responsibility).

On another level (but in close connection to our subject) I think that religion is one of the sources (NB: not the only source, not the exclusive source) that render possible the »good society«. It is common sense to me that faith provides for the ethical anchor in every society.

So as you see, I understand faith very much as de Tocqueville or Hannah Arendt, who both contended that intermediary associations between family and state such as churches, community centers, labor unions all help to break down social isolation. Thus they generally have good effect on the polity at large. In a sense they provide for a social net, a multiple structure, which creates »space« to use Arendt's expression, necessary for protection against ever present totalitarian tendencies.

These are all the reasons I regard Žižek's position without merit. And I really do think he sounds patently Marxist and that this is just another unconvincing attempt to undermine faith. At least it isn't as boring as so many others. And finally it's symptomatic he's giving Mladina as an example of a good "godless atheist liberal” stance. Mladina isn’t the most professional and the most tolerant of journals, or is it?

A footnote: Having said all that I find Žižek's vivid character highly likeable, his sense of humor also. Furthermore, he is in my opinion incontestably and exceptionally capable in his field, his academic career surely confirms that. However his line of thinking, basically psychoanalysis grafted on some derivative of Marxism is not what I look for in philosophy. But that's just my personal taste and choice.

Thanks for all thought provoking comments.

 

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