Monday, April 4, 2011

Zizek On Politeness As The Space Of Freedom And The Core Of Morality

I am making slow progress into Zizek's In Defense Of Lost Causes. Finished chapter 1 of 9 today. The title of chapter 1 is "Happiness and Torture In The Atonal World"

He does something very very interesting in the chapter. He begins by expounding a general theory of civility and politeness, pointing out its ambiguity, its strangeness, its seemingly arbitrary nature. He says that they are something like Lacan's notion of the Master-Signifier: "the set of rules grounded only in themselves ('it is so because it is so, because it is our custom') (22). All these little rituals that we can't quite explain.

Zizek then explains how these arbitrary rules and customs are absolutely necessary. We need them if we are to function in anyways at all. He claims that "the rules of civility do not constrain our freedom, but provide the only space within which our freedom can thrive; the legal order enforced by state apparatuses is the base for our free-market exchanges; the grammatical rules are the indispensable base for our free thought...; habit as our 'second nature' is the base for culture; the collective of believers is the base, the only terrain, within which a Christian subject can be free, and so on" (20).

This is in line with so many things I have been thinking for a while. I wrote in AZI I have done a good bit of writing about expressing ourselves within already existing structures. I wrote a section called 'The Relative Nature of Art, Choice, And Life: We Are Partially Determined, Get Over It'. And this was the precise issue I was trying to talk about. There will always be a cultural 'base', or set of already existing rules that will determine some of the qualities of our expression and our relationships. That doesn't mean that we should reject them as silly or 'deterministic' (although they are both of those things, perhaps). We should rather embrace them, as Zizek says, as the only possible space in which our freedom can be grounded. This is also something I wrote about in relation to Foucault's notion of strategy. I think that Foucault really believes that we exist in a partially determined world, and that the best thing that we can do is to learn the already existing rules so as to move more freely within them, and possibly to change them.

Zizek then goes on to draw the political implications of his analysis of politeness and civility. He explains how in our postmodern society of micro-cultures and nuance the master-signifier, the essence of politeness and civility, the base for our freedom is being compromised. "The basic feature of our 'postmodern' world," he argues, "is that it tries to dispense with the agency of the Master-Signifier: the 'complexity' of the world should be asserted unconditionally, every Master-Signifier meant to impose some order on it should be 'deconstructed,' 'dispersed,' 'disseminated': 'The modern apology of the world [...] is really nothing but a generalized desire for atonality' " (30). When Zizek refers to atonality he is drawing on Alain Badiou's notion of an atonal world: a world without a definite feeling to it, a world in which all master-signifiers have been problematized and there is no longer a definite feeling to any interaction or relationship. Zizek believes that our postmodern world has the illusion of atonality.

This atonality, this lack of certainty as to the assumptions of others with regards to politeness and interactions, is something that is symptomatic of a larger problem that exists in the political world. And Zizek sees torture and the public discussion around torture as evidence of this problem. He believes that we are only able to talk about torture in the ways that we do, we are only able to debate its moral justification, because the Master-Signifiers in our society have been compromised by postmodern analysis. The atonal nature of social interactions is bleeding over into our moral and political world: "Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It only thrives if it is sustained by what Hegel called 'objective spirit,' the set of acceptable and what is unacceptable. For example, the sign of progress in our societies is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is 'dogmatically' clear to everyone that rape is wrong, and we all feel that even arguing against it is too much. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, it would be a sad sign if one had to argue against him – he should simply appear ridiculous. And the same holds true for torture. This is why the greatest victims of publicly admitted tortured are all of us, the public that is informed about it. We should all be aware that some part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably civilization's greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity" (50).

And Zizek thus moves from a justification of the importance of politeness, civility, and Master-Signifiers to a claim that debates about torture signify the collapse of certain moral assumptions. Zizek thus manages to link politeness and political morality in a profound way.

I have a lot of mulling to do about this claim. I wrote this at the end of the chapter: "So we see a theory of civility turn into thought on our atonal world, which develops into the tension between fundamentalists and postmodernists, so we begin to see the atonality of politics. Finally, we see how the atonality of politics leads to the possibility of torture and the de-ethicalization of society. It seems that the dominant role of science leads both to atonality and the rise of biomorality in which 'happiness' and relativism thrive"

What an interesting place Zizek has managed to take me in the first chapter. And how wonderfully relevant it is to all sorts of things I have already been thinking and writing.

If you are reading this, please take politeness seriously.

Perhaps this is just a sensitive and insecure statement. And I'm sorry to urge other people to do certain things. I don't mean to be prescriptive or rude. I take politeness seriously. Maybe I am just too sensitive. But I am so pleased that Zizek seems to be taking politeness seriously, and that he ends up implying that it is an important thing, albeit for more profound reasons than just being nice. I look forward to reading more of this book.

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