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Žižek’s Real Desert

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

In short, America should learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation—what we are getting instead is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, but its lack of it. 

                             —Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Žižek does not overload his writing with normative statements.  Here, however, he clearly puts forth an “ought.”  He recommends that America accept its vulnerability.  What is not said in this sentence, but what is abundantly clear throughout the second chapter of Welcome to the Desert of the Real, is that accepting vulnerability represents, for Žižek, an alternate way between “the dialectical category of totality.”

Against the prevailing rhetoric that deludes Americans and other Western peoples into thinking that they have two choices—between “Them” or “Us,” “Capitalism” or “The Other,” “Inside” or “Outside,” “First World” or “Third World”—Žižek attempts more than merely to reveal a third-way between competing totalities.  He seeks instead to interrogate the competing totalities and to show how they are narrativized to mask the symptoms of our own desires.  He demonstrates that “We” have constructed our own fundamentalisms that oppose—yet mirror—the fundamentalisms of “The Other.”  There is an evil to both sides of whatever lies beneath constructed dualities; only by searching for that evil can we place 9/11 in its proper context.  The totalities of “Them” versus “Us,” for example, can be redefined such that Bush and Bin Laden “are both ‘Them’ against Us.”  The point of this recasting is to suggest that 9/11 and its aftermath do not represent grand moral narratives leading inexorably to a clear choice: for or against terrorism.  Rather, 9/11 and its aftermath are what upset America’s perception of itself as “an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen.”  9/11 was a wake-up to reality, not to morality.

For this reason, 9/11 and its aftermath ought to blur any simple claims to moral superiority as well as any ideological interpretation of the deaths of the victims.  9/11 did not bring about ethical or ideological clarity.  “Far from offering a case apropos of which we can adopt a clear ethical stance,” Žižek asserts, “we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime.”

But few people are innocent, at least if innocence means completely removed from any system that is complicit in the rise of violence and extremism; nearly everyone is implicated in some system or another that contributed (and contributes) to the rise of fundamentalism.  To construct a crude “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is to create a false abstraction that validates the very behavior that generated the hostility motivating the crimes to begin with.  To construct that narrative is to placate personal guilt and to shield “Us” from identification with “The Problem.”

Because of these arguments, Welcome to the Desert of the Real disrupts the apparent unity of the dialectical categories that Americans and other Western peoples accept uncritically.  It challenges the images and stories that seem to have as their goal the legitimation of violence.  Whatever one thinks of Žižek—I am, for the record, not a fan—his arguments in this book deserve careful consideration.

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