Žižek’s (atheist) theology, IJŽS, arbitrarily grounded ethics

The International Journal of Žižek Studies has a new edition on Žižek’s (atheist) theology, guest edited by Marcus Pound: Vol 4, No 4 (2010).

Jayne Svenungsson

Jayne Svenungsson

Jayne Svenungsson’s article caught my attention. She begins by rightly noting the tendency of Badiou and Žižek to set Christianity against Judaism, and also to contrast grace and law – in a manner which “carries problematic anti-Jewish undertones.” Against this she discusses two Jewish examples which provide exceptions to this simplification and rude essentialism: Maimonides and Levinas

But it’s her criticism of the conception of the Truth-Event as groundless – without foundation, a rupture – that intrigues me. Svenungsson complains that Žižek “comes dangerously close to the decisionists” who “turned history into ‘the tribunal of the world’,” whose “only foundation of the legitimacy of truth … was the resolute decision in the face of Nothingness.” On the one hand this objection exposes the difficulty of distinguishing – except arbitrarily – an “authentic” Event from one which is “inauthentic.” Žižek recognizes that Heidegger – the Nazi Heidegger – makes “the right step in the wrong direction.” But Žižek’s reasons for it being the “wrong” direction appear inevitably ad hoc, unable to judge between fascism and socialism without assuming some impossible point from which to do so. So on the other hand, does Svenungsson’s objection not simply observe the inevitable condition of any ethical system – to be ungrounded, or more precisely grounded arbitrarily?

Witness the attempt at the beginning of Capital to identify labor as the sole basis of value for a commodity, and so form the basis of Marx’s prescriptive. Absurdly, this reduction to a single factor (labor) follows an arbitrary elimination of a host of other conditions which might justifiably be considered the basis for the value of the commodity: differential skill level, invention, technique, technology, social organization, political stability, nature, etc. And therefore, Marx’s pseudo-scientific analysis covers over the arbitrary grounding of his subsequent prescription. It is an unnecessary and false foundation myth for socialism. As such it follows the logic of myths of origin described by Joanne H. Wright (in Origin Stories in Political Thought (2004), 163 ): “Myths of origin serve as a means of evading the uncomfortable recognition that life is devoid of inherent meaning.” Marx would have done better to avoid his pseudo-science in Capital, and just declare, “this is what socialism is, and this is what we want!” The cry “this is what we want!” is ultimately the only valid basis for any ethical-political system. In recent works (On Violence, Living in the End Times), Žižek considers this refusal of deeper meaning in relation to the speeches of Job against God, in which Job resolutely refuses to give coherent meaning to his suffering. The book of Job (which is the Bible’s most anti-Christian book) may save Žižek from his futile attempt to avoid the impasse of Nothingness via St. Paul and Marx.

So what is required is nothing less than a new supersessionism: the supersession of St. Paul (and Marx) by the Jewish Tanach! In particular, by the speeches of Job, before the divine attempt to provide an obscurantist justification (which is no justification at all), and without any (impossible) justification whatsoever. An age in which ideology has become transparent, and yet people do what ideology hails them to do anyway – in short, an age of grotesque cynicism – is also an age which can finally accept the ungrounded ethical position of Job, desiring no closure, without further basis, except – “Just do it!” So the arrival of widespread cynicism may, indirectly, be employed for a great advantage. How easily our “knowing what we do is grounded in ideology, but doing it anyway” (cynicism) may be transformed into “knowing what we can do otherwise has no ground, but doing it anyway” (a leap of faith). On what grounds would anybody object?

See: Jayne Svenungsson, “Wrestling with Angels: Or How to Avoid Decisionist Messianic Romances.” International Journal of Žižek Studies 4.4 (2010).

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