Slavoj Zizek: living in the desert of the real (part 1)

You just can’t escape Slavoj Zizek. The prolific, provocative, and occasionally bombastic philosopher is our most prominent and indefatigable prophet. On Saturday, the New York Times published a guest op-ed from him, entitled, “Knight of the Living Dead” (HT to WTM). In this short piece, Zizek forces us to consider “what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture.”

Like most of Zizek’s works, this op-ed is full of compelling insights, many of which open up connections to other modern thinkers. For example, Zizek points out that a common argument used to support the use of torture is simply that “one must take extreme steps” in these extreme times. The war on terror is an exception situation, or so the typical pro-war, pro-torture argument goes. This bears a close affinity with the statements of William Cavanaugh, who spoke at PTS in 2006, against the notion of American exceptionalism: that the United States is an exceptional country fighting an exceptional war against exceptional enemies, thereby authorizing exceptional tactics such as torture. (The essay was published in Theology Today 63.3.)

Zizek then goes on to say:
Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost.
In this paragraph, Zizek seems to be speaking of torture as a Grenzfall—an extreme case, a limit or boundary, something that one only does but can never normalize. In speaking of a Grenzfall I am deliberating alluding to Karl Barth’s ethics from Church Dogmatics III/4. Barth and Zizek are quite close ethically at this point, in that the extreme case is not banned; it simply remains an ad hoc event which cannot be anything other than an act which occurs in the “brutal urgency of the moment.”

However, to his credit, Zizek goes on to clarify himself:
[A] clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.
For Barth, at least at certain points in CD III/4, it simply cannot be dogmatically clear that such-and-such is wrong. On some issues, yes, it is clear; but on others, we have to be careful. Barth’s dialectical theology becomes evident here in his ethics. Here I think Barth and Zizek are probably closer together than someone like John Howard Yoder might lead us to believe: there are some things that are clearly and dogmatically wrong. Rape is an obvious one. Torture is another. Whether we are able—as I think we are—to identify war as something dogmatically wrong is a question that vexes Barth, who seems torn between his “practical pacifism” and his experience of living through two World Wars. I do not wish to address the specific ethical details at issue here. For now, I simply wish to assert that Zizek is moving us in the right direction. He aims to turn us away from the disastrously slippery slope of normalizing torture toward a recovery of our “ethical backbone.” I hope that he, along with other outspoken religious leaders, succeeds.

(Stay tuned for a second post on Zizek.)


Shane said…
In general I don't have much truck with Zizek. Post-Marxist Lacanian Psychoanalysis just doesn't get me off. But, I too found a nice bit of Zizek in the media recently. A very nice critique of human rights:

"In our post-political liberal-permissive society, human rights can be seen as expressing the right to violate the Ten Commandments. The right to privacy is, in effect, the right to commit adultery, in secret, without being observed or investigated. The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property is, in effect, the right to steal (to exploit others). Freedom of the press and of expression - the right to lie. The right of free citizens to possess weapons - the right to kill. Freedom of religious belief - the right to celebrate false gods. Human rights do not, of course, directly condone the violation of the Commandments, but they preserve a marginal 'grey zone' which is out of the reach of religious or secular power. In this shady zone, I can violate the Commandments, and if the Power catches me with my pants down and tries to prevent my violation, I can cry: 'Assault on my basic human rights!'"

from this article.
Derek said…
I agree with Zizek here. Only my difficulty with the issue of torture is defining exaclty what constitutes as torture. Is there a hard and fast definition out there by which we can easily identify just what torture is, from sticking a suspect under the hot lights, to "working" a known criminal until he confesses. Torture nowadays not only means physical but psychological wear, and I suppose it gets murky for me when we go to lengths not to disrupt a criminal's psychological ease, and makes me wonder if we aren't appealing to the "basic human rights" of the criminal in the process.
The Miner said…
I say Amen to Zizek in this instance.

Regarding what constitutes torture: I think many people nowadays would find it fascinating to read the diaries of inquisitors of the church during the medieval period. Much like the clinical approach Nazi doctors took to the holocaust, inquisitors wrote quite dispassionately about exactly what it took to produce a confession. Remarkably, 99% of the time the only technique used was sleep deprivation. They were acutely aware of how quickly and easily the emotions break down when under sustained, but gentle pressure. Most people confessed within 72 hours of being sleep deprived. Medically speaking you are likely to begin hallucinating after 48 or so hours. Irreversible brain damage has been done after 60 hours. By 72 hours a person is hardly coherent and will generally say whatever they are prompted too.

Torture is any method used to coerce testimony from a subject. Threat of force, scare tactics, intimidation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, humiliation - these are all ancient, well known, and very effective techniques of torture.