Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Slavoj Zizek: Self-love, Otherness, & Art vs. Science

Out of nowhere on Friday another Slavoj Zizek book jumped off the shelf at me and stole a good hour from my day. He fascinates me, and its not just because he quotes Chesterton all the time. I've written about him before, but what got me this time was a book he co-authored with two others, called The Neighbor.

Zizek has a knack for mining pop culture, the arts, philosophy and religion and melding bold reinterpretations of them together to form a seemingly scattered yet strangely seamless argument. The following exerpt is no exception. Though I am intrigued by a lot this passage has to say regarding sociology and even theology, there's one nugget I've put in bold because it does something I've never seen before: It pits art and science against each other and suggests that art (ideally) is a more reliable gateway to understanding. Check it all out and see what you think. Zizek writes:

"Today, we seem effectively to be at the opposite point of the ideology of the 1960s: the mottos of spontaneity, creative self-expression, and so on, are taken over by the System; in other words, the old logic of the system reproducing itself through repressing and rigidly channeling the subject's spontaneous impulses is left behind.

Nonalienated spontaneity, self-expression, self-realization, they all directly serve the system [which Zizek has just argued thrives on the white noise of our 'unconstrained permissiveness'], which is why pitiless self-censorship is a sine qua non of emancipatory politics.

Especially in the domain of poetic art, this means that one should totally reject any attitude of self-expression, of displaying one's innermost turmoil, desires, and dreams. True art has nothing whatsoever to do with disgusting emotional exhibitionism . . . . If there is a thing that provokes disgust in a true poet, it is the scene of a close friend opening up his heart, spilling out all the dirt of his inner life.

Consequently, one should totally reject the standard opposition of 'objective' science focused on reality and 'subjective' art focused on emotional reaction to it and self-expression: if anything, true art is more asubjective than science. In science, I remain a person with my pathological features, I just assert objectivity outside it, while in true art, the artist has to undergo a radical self-objectivization, he has to die in and for himself, turn into a kind of living dead. . . .

In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror-image or to the means in the path of my self-realization . . . , Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my Neighbor---the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. . . .

The radical conclusion to be drawn from this is that one should renounce striving for one's own (spiritual) salvation as the highest form of egotism. According to Lean Brunschvicg: 'The pre-occupation with our salvation is a remnant of self-love, a trace of natural egocentrism from which we must be torn by the religious life. As long as you think only salvation, you turn your back on God. God is God, only for the person who overcomes the temptation to degrade Him and use Him for his own ends.'"

- Excerpted from chapter 3, "Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence", p. 134-142


Jon Coutts said...

Lots you could take a crack at there. Politically and societally, I think he's got something there (in that first part).

As for true poets and art, I'd leave more room and have more appreciation for good, non-narcissistic self-expression than he's suggesting, but I feel his point and would love to hear my more artistic readers on it.

As for art v. science, I think there is some hyperbole going on here, but maybe not. I do appreciate it any time the facade of objectivity is exposed, even in the scientific community, and I do think there are some appropriate things to be said on art's side in its importance for understanding the world truly (in ways other modes of thought can't touch).

As for the theological import of that last bit, I think there is a somewhat appropriate critique and redirection there, isn't there? Especially against certain justification- and heaven- obsessed strains of Christianity, not ot mention those tendencies of faith which turn God into a vehicle for some kind of imagined salvation rather than entering into love and reconciliation and the whole gracious shebang.

So there's some touching points if anyone has any reactions. I don't often solicit comments so aggressively, but I am curious, curious, curious....

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

He writes,
"If there is a thing that provokes disgust in a true poet, it is the scene of a close friend opening up his heart, spilling out all the dirt of his inner life."

What? Is he saying 'unfortunately this is how it is,' or 'this is how it should be'?

He writes,
"in true art, the artist has to undergo a radical self-objectivization, he has to die in and for himself, turn into a kind of living dead..."

If all "true" artists were self-objective, living dead people, then I just don't think many of my favourite artists would stand up. Artists are almost always narcissistic, because your own soul is the easiest window to look through deeply and study. I'm not sure I want to condemn that narcissism.

I don't think I understand what Zizek is saying, actually.

As for art vs. science, I heard an interesting story this week. The experimental film-maker Maya Deren apparently tried to make a film about dancers on some tiny pacific island nation (I can't remember which -sorry) and she discovered that because she was trying to make art, rather than just observing them, that she was welcomed by the people there in a way that scientists never were.

What's also curious to me is the way that artists, in taking liberties, can often get closer to "the truth" (or what Herzog calls "ecstatic truth") much more efficiently than scientists.

However, I don't go to an artist when I'm sick. Nor should I. I go to the doctor.

Those are my scattered, immediate thoughts.

Jon Coutts said...

I have ripped an excerpt from a larger chapter, which I myself was struggling at times to understand, but let me see if I can clarify that part about art.

Zizek's thing here is that the societal "system" (political and commercial forces which hold sway on our society) no longer controls us by suppressing self-expression and variety but by encouraging them, so that what we have is a blanket tolerance where unconstrained permissiveness reigns. The only constraints are that you don't hurt anybody else. And yet this system controls us, because in such a realm it is those who can manipulate the likes and dislikes of the mass and thus define "hurt" who reign. Not only that, but identity and otherness becomes a meaningless drop in a huge bucket, and self-expression is just cheap. Self-flagellating or self-glorifying narcissism is then embarrassing.

I think he is saying this, not just saying someone is saying it. I'm saying he is saying it, but I do sort of see his point.

That said, like you I recognize a certain necessity and even wonder to self-expression (we are the best subject we know, our best window to human experience), and I can't imagine the landscape of art without it.

But, Zizek wants to say that we don't know ourselves as well as we think, and we know ourselves even less the more wrapped up in ourselves we are. So there is a tipping point to self-expression (both societallly and individually) where it just becomes one more piece of white noise (my phrase, not his) to be manipulated by the powers that be.

Zizek wants to say we don't know ourselves as well as we think, and are all awash in our own self-love. Scientists and artists alike. Even when we claim to be encountering and expressing the Others in the world we are just projecting our self.

So Zizek calls for relentless self-censorship, where we are willing to really encounter that Other we don't like, and come to grips with what is really out there. And in art he is calling for a "true art" which denies self and expresses that Real behind those chosen Others.

Frankly, the guy seems to love alot of the art I like, so I think he wants to be fairly generous and say there is some good true art out there, even stuff that may look like self-expression. I imagine he's going to say that a guy like Herzog is exactly what he wants to see. One who finds this Real Other out there and gets into it and then from within, and then expresses it, perhaps more clearly than the Other themselves might have done. The very thing you are talking about I think.

This sort of empathetic expression is true art, I think Zizek is saying, and is also the posture our ailing society is missing.

And I'm sure Zizek goes to a doctor too, but maybe he has a nutritionist or holistic medicine guy or something. Who knows. Point is, science isn't that simple either. Ironically, there may be no field of thought today with more varied opinions than the field of medicine. Science, like anything else, especially the more objective it claims to be, is susceptible to all the blind projections of self love and bias.

Thus, in what today seems to be the exponentially rising curve of scientific "progress", Zizek wants to say that we may be misinterpreting progress, and wants to point to true art (as opposed to the system feeding white noise of unabashed self-expression) as a much more promising future for us, generally and sociologically, than is currently given credit.

Hope that helps, and I hope I'm at least sort of getting him right.

Dale Harris said...

When I read it, especially the bold part, it reminded me of John Keats' "negative capability" (pronounced "negate-ive capability") where he argues that a poet of genius negates the self in order to enter fully into the objective reality of the art. I don't suppose it's ever possible to fully negate self, but I also feel like the idea that art is/should be primarily a mode of self expression can produce some pretty dull art.

Eric said...

OK, another author for me to read! Like I'm not behind enough as it is! Sheesh. Thanks, Jon. Oh, and can you please explain to me now an artist is supposed to be delivered from disgusting self-ism by death to self into the objectivity of art? How an artist is supposed to be living/dead? Just lay it on me in a few sentences.

Eric said...

Hey, John, have you read this? Fascinating and funny!

Jon Coutts said...

Dale: John Keats said this? Huh.

Eric: Well, I'm not totally sure I want to take it on myself to defend and then apply Zizek completely, but my impression from him was that he was calling for us (not just artists) to turn away from self and the select other in front of us to an abstract third, the abstract humanity all around. This is his "plea for ethical violence". In his view we are commiting violence against each other by projecting self and selecting other, and the only ethical violence is this choice of abstract humanity. This seems horribly empty to me, which makes me wonder if I got it correctly, although I still wonder if there is something to it.

Thing is, there are some connections to Christianity there that are actually more fully bodied and reasonable and promising than this mere abstraction. But isn't that always the case when some abstraction or human principle serves as the telos of society or as a stand in for religion? In Chesterton's day it was the Superman. Hegel talked about this Spirit, this world-occurrence. Today we have a folk philosophy, an optimism of human progress. But on what basis or toward what we can't say.

I am fairly attracted to a lot that Zizek is saying, but there are a couple points where it just seems to come up empty right when it had promise. One is this total denial of self-expression and the other is the abstraction which stands in for humanity. Perhaps in the latter case I'd just need to read more of how he fills in or defines that abstraction. In the former case, I commend him for how he cuts through today's more subtle manipulations of power and self-deception and calls to a radical humility. I think there is a lot to say for this.

But I just think that the Christian rendering of humanity (love neighbor AS you love yourself, in both cases based on love for their Creator and Redeemer) is so much richer and has such a more solid basis.

Believing that God was made man and conquered the grave and is not done with the world yet makes death to self a turn to new life rather than pure negation. Believing this redemption and in the love of God for that abstract hoard of unkown humans out there gives me reason to consider not just them, those Others, but also the Others in front of me, as opportunities to learn and grow, to love and be loved. There is a great hope here which can't be reduced to optimism and yet there is a great realism that can't be reduced to pessimism.

In a way I want to turn a phrase and say to Zizek: "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian!"

That was a long answer. I guess to your questionk, Eric, I'm personally not sure how, outside of loving God with one's heart, soul, mind, body (and art) and in that motion with that loving neighbor (near and far) as you love yourself. Connected to this worldview I think we get beautiful self-expression and I would hope also beautiful examples of what Zizek is calling for, both. I don't want to be unfair to Zizek and say he doesn't have something to compete with that because I am not sure where he'd take it from here, but that'd be my stab at it.

Jon Coutts said...

Two additional comments though:

I want more self-expression when it comes to those groanings over reality-unredeemed, those laments that save us from self-assured triumphalism and empty optimism. At least in the church, I find this sorely lacking. But I don't think its the fault of the lamenters, its the fault of the church for having no place for that mode of expression; of worship. In the church's case the selected other is the happy go lucky comfortable optimist; a selection so powerful we conform to it even when the clothes don't fit.

And secondly, I think that I sound pretty rosy about loving God and dying to self above. I don't want to underplay the self-sacrifice and deep trust involved here at times, and Zizek's warning against salvation-obsession reminds me that in the here and now my preference for personal comfort and security over following God is less like love for God and more like love for self.

Alright I've said enough. I'll check out that link Eric.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"Even when we claim to be encountering and expressing the Others in the world we are just projecting our self."

I'm gonna chew on that for a while. Science has done a lot for me. It has helped me out. So I feel some loyalty to it. But I also want it to be pushed, pulled, and criticized, and forced to survive in hostility. I want the paradigm of our age to be tested, and I feel like Zizek is one of the only thinkers I've encountered who seems to be taking this task upon himself in a respectable way.

I like the idea of relentless self-censorship. Post-modernity has opened the door for artists to be free to do whatever the hell they want -to the point that it seems we hardly know what is or isn't art anymore. And that's good. But most contemporary art I encounter leaves me feeling like the artist didn't push themself hard enough. They made something simply, and poorly, and then hid behind their freedom. Yes we are free to do anything; but of course, with liberty comes responsibility.

Relentless self-censorship.


I saw a film recently that he was in. Ten minutes of him walking around a garbage dump talking about how we need to learn to appreciate trash, in the same way that you appreciate the worst aspects of the people you love. It was absolutely incredible, and seemed, to me, to be very very very christian.

Jon Coutts said...

That's awesome Matthew. Appreciating trash is Christian. I am totally holding myself back from making a snide comment about Christian art. Oops, guess I just did. Just kidding, I appreciate what you said there and in all the comments thus far have found it very helpful for me to hear Zizek hit others in similar ways as he hit me. It has helped me to sort through and articulate the good and bad of it.

I was very curious what your thoughts on art would be and wished I'd said what you said above about both science and art. Exactly.

Oh by the way, for more of a window into Zizek, that link above that Eric gave is pretty priceless!

Stewart said...

what a fascinating discussion... some of it stretching my brain and heart (ie science and art?). I find myself agreeing with those last comments about the shallowness of the church in lament and art...and yet isn't that a universal shallowness that these authors and this discussion have unearthed. And is the church's proclivity to "happy go lucky optimism" all that bad. Yes we must be realistic and lament so much badness...yet isn't our "hope" some kind of optimism? I think we use "hope" in a self serving way...but only when we divorce it from the reality of how that "hope" came to via the incarnate son of God who went through a very lamentable situation to bring us unimaginable goodness. I'm rambling i think...or maybe not.

Eric said...

Thanks, Jon, that's really helpful. Zizek is on my list. Need to understand Lacan better anyway. Something about him pulls at me.

forrest said...

What if the divide between science and art was the ultimate selfish projection?

In a postmodern age, there is a fear that Self will be lost in the Other, and therefore self has been nurtured to the point of imagined stark contrasts. i.e. Scientific vs artistic. If you ask yourself honestly if the contrast exists, I think there might be a bit of a disconnect.

"As for art v. science, I think there is some hyperbole going on here"

"while in true art, the artist has to undergo a radical self-objectivization, he has to die in and for himself, turn into a kind of living dead. . . ."

Perhaps, to avoid the inevitable self-projection of self into art, the artist must "die" much like the author must die...although, as we are aware, no theory can have a universal hold. I think that self-projection, if not on the part of the artist, comes from the viewer. If this is true, the artist is dead, the viewer the viewer now the artist? has the artist not died, but instead been spiritually transferred - responsibility handed off to the nearest stranger, the unaware by-passer?

The nebulous general humanity is interesting, but I agree, quite cold. I think this especially because the lack of a centre point for ideas - the dead artist, the unintentional onlooker - means that there is also a lack of centred responsibility. Centred intention, reality, true manifestation of relationship.

Perhaps the idea of a nebulous humanity makes the idea of a similar God more manageable. Relation between species right? Keep it in the family.

Jon Coutts said...

wow, thanks forrest!

"What if the divide between science and art was the ultimate selfish projection? ..."

I do think you've got something there.

I also think this holds true somewhat in the faith/reason tension.

"theory can have a universal hold"

Yeah, I like what Zizek is saying but there are many counter-tensions to it that I also feel valid. Often I'm not sure whether I'm trying to choose between truth and untruth so much as trying to figure out which truth needs particular emphasis right now.

"self-projection, if not on the part of the artist, comes from the viewer. If this is true, the artist is dead, the viewer the viewer now the artist? has the artist not died, but instead been spiritually transferred - responsibility handed off to the nearest stranger, the unaware by-passer?"

So much I want to say and ask:

- Thus, even adamant self-expression, once "put out there" can be a death to self. A giving away of oneself to be freely interpreted by others. The way I see it there are a few ways to avoid this death to self. You can militantly follow your art around insisting on proper interpretation, or just let it go. You can have such obvious trite and self-serving art that there are not ways it can be hijacked to have other meanings. Or you could even just remain uncaring and totally aloof so that there is no death to self so much as a dualistic divorcing of oneself from that thing created.

- There are many similarities here to preaching and sermon-crafting. I've always thought that. Like photographers you are trying to "find" a picture and then "capture" it in a certain light, at a certain angle, and even guide its development and frame it for the best possible reception. But once you've hung it on the wall, its a new event, it has a life of its own. There is a certain authority of meaning in what has been done, but there is a new authority now, on the part of the viewer/listener.

(And in preaching, if I believe in the living active Word rather than the dead letter and my authoritative mediation of meaning, and if I believe in the Holy SPirit, then I have to concede at least some authority to the "hearing event" itself. Trouble is, I'm not sure how often the hearers actually even try to grapple or engage with the spoken word at all. There ought to be some recognition both ways of authority both of the original "art" as made, and even of the living interpretations of it being made perpetually.)

- I often have felt like telling an artist what that new event (my seeing or hearing of their art) meant for me in my life or in a given "hearing". But I'm never quite sure what to do with that. Usually when I do it I feel like I'm either stabbing the artist through the heart, only accentuating the death to self and rubbing it in. Or I just feel embarassed because I'm obviously so naive and way off. Maybe we're just supposed to let it be what it is, both respecting the artist, the art, and the viewer. That said, I think there is something to talking about the whole event, inclusive of all three, to some extent. Maybe it depends what it is.

(Maybe not in art so much, but especially in doctrine of Scripture and preaching and the Spirit this is a huge issue today. Where is the authority? In the author's intent, the text, or the hearer (and to add another level, the hearer of the hearing-preacher's proclamation)? Fundamentalists of varying stripes are born when one comes down on any one part too hard. The faithful theologian of today wants to think about the whole event, I think, the whole "matrix of authority" as I called it in a paper once).

- But why do so many artists not want to explain their art? Or at least put it in context? Maybe this cheapens it?

That was all over the place. If you wish to comment further, don't let my ramblings overshadow the comments of others. Feel free to engage with Forrest and ignore me, or if you want take it into the areas I've charted, be it with preaching, art, or what have you. Or let it drop, that's fine too.