Zizek’s public and private


In response to the evolving conservations about Cheap Pills Slavoj Zizek, I purchased Interrogating the Real today. In the author’s introduction, he provides a useful investigation of the relationship between the individual and the collective today. A full transcription of pages 14-15 seems in order.

Along the lines of this constitutive ‘homelessness’ of philosophy, one should rehabilitate Kant’s idea of the cosmopolitan ‘world-civil-society’ (Weltburgergesellschaft), which is not simply an expansion of the citizenship of a nation state to the citizenship of a global trans-national state, instead, it involves a shift from the principle of identification with one’s ‘organic’ ethnic substance actualized in a particular tradition to a radically different principle of identification. Recall Deleuze’s notion of universal singularity as opposed to the triad of Individuality-Particularity-Universality — this opposition is precisely the opposition between Kant and Hegel. For Hegel, ‘world-civil-society’ is an abstract notion without substantial content, lacking the mediation of the particular and thus the force of full actuality, i.e., it involves an abstract identification which does not substantially grasp the subject; the only way for an individual effectively to participate in universal humanity is therefore through a full identification with a particular Nation-State (I am ‘human’ only insofar as I am German, English …). For Kant, on the contrary, ‘world-civil-society’ designates the paradox of the universal singularity, of a singular subject who, in a kind of short-circuit, bypasses the mediation of the particular by directly participating in the Universal. This identification with the Universal is not the identification with an encompassing global Substance (‘humanity’), but an identification with a universal ethico-politcal principle — a universal religious collective, a scientific collective, a global revolutionary organization, all of which are accessible to everyone. This is what Kant, in the famous passage of his ‘What is Enlightenment?’, means by ‘public’ as opposed to ‘private’: ‘private’ is not one’s individuality as opposed to one’s communal ties, but the very communal-institutional order of one’s particular identification; while ‘public’ is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason. The paradox is thus that one participates in the universal dimension of the ‘public’ sphere precisely as singular individual extracted from or even opposed to one’s substantial communal identification — one is truly universal only as radically singular, in the interstices of communal identities. And what we find at the end of this road is atheism — not the ridiculously pathetic spectacle of the heroic defiance of God, but insight into the irrelevance of the divine, along the lines of Brecht’s Herr Keuner:

Someone asked Herr Keuner if there is a god. Herr Keuner said: I advise you to think about how your behaviour would change with regard to the answer to this question. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can help you at least insofar as I can tell you: You already decided: You need a God.

Brecht is right here: we are never in a position directly to choose between theism and atheism, since the choice as such is already located within the field of belief. ‘Atheism’ (in the sense of deciding not to believe in God) is a miserable, pathetic stance of those who long for God but cannot find him (or who ‘rebel against God’). A true atheist does not choose atheism: for him, the question is irrelevant — this is the stance of a truly atheistic subject.

The standard critical procedure today is to mobilize opposition of human and subject: the notion of subjectivity (self-consciousness, self-positing autonomy, etc.) stands for dangerous hubris, a will to power, which obfuscates and distorts the authentic essence of humanity; the task is thus to think the essence of humanity outside the domain of subjectivity. What Lacan tries to accomplish seems to be the exact opposite of this standard procedure: in all his great literary interpretations — from Oedipus and Antigone through Sade to Claudel — he is in search of a point at which we enter the dimension of the ‘inhuman’, the point at which ‘humanity’ disintegrates, so that all that remains is the pure subject. Sophocles’ Antigone, Sade’s Juliette, Claudel’s Sygne — they are all these figures of such an ‘inhuman’ subject (in contract to their ‘human counterpoint: Ismene, Justine …). To paraphrase Nietszche, what one should render problematic is what in us is ‘human, all too human’. One should not be afraid to apply this insight also to politics: it is all too simple to dismiss Nazis as inhuman and bestial — what if the real problem with the Nazis was precisely that they remained ‘human, all too human’?

Johanna also passed along online Order this essential NY Times op-ed article by Zizek following Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s ‘confessions.’ Order

2 thoughts on “Zizek’s public and private

  1. Christopher

    Check out Zizek in a starring role in Sophie Fiennes’ “The Perverts Guide to Cinema.” We are in conversations with the director and are very hopeful to have a special screening of this film in the coming weeks as part of the documentary bodega.

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