Zizek on neighbourly love

Zizek on neighbourly love
Zizek on neighbourly love

It is relatively well known that Zizek calls himself a ‘Christian atheist’ – paradoxical as that may sound. In this post, let us have a look at a particular statement from Christ, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ that Zizek gives a particular spin to. This is, as readers of Zizek would expect, a political statement, not simply a moral or religious one; and it is in this sense that Zizek can entertain the relationship between love and neighbour. The paradox is precisely in the conception of religion as an apolitical system of belief, while Zizek’s contention is to assert its political content.

The constitutive outside

While looking at the statement ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, it is the notion of neighbour that is of primary importance. Love gets its meaning from the position of the neighbour. As Chantal Mouffe reminds us (through a reference to Henry Staten), the constitution of identity “implies the establishment of difference, difference which is often constructed on the basis of a hierarchy … every identity is relational and that the affirmation of a difference is a precondition for the existence of any identity, i.e. the perception of something ‘other’ which constitutes its ‘exterior’” (On the Political, p. 15). The neighbour in Zizek includes all the frailties of humanity – the category of the neighbour functions according to our characterisation of ourselves as distinct. That is to say, the exterior boundary that is placed in conceiving the neighbour strengthens our ‘self-identity’. Zizek’s conclusion is thus that the statement ‘love thy neighbour’ as understood by Christians is meant as a strategy to avoid any real encounter with the neighbour. This same strategy is utilised in the liberal notions of equality and tolerance – the (intolerance of the) other is necessary for the creation of the (tolerant) self.

The statement ‘love thy neighbour’ precludes the real love of the neighbour on this ground – the reality of the neighbour stands as that reminder of our fragile identity. This is precisely why the ‘invasion’ of the foreigner remains the focal point of political discourse. As Zizek notes in The Fragile Absolute: “what ‘bothers’ us in the ‘other’ (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to enjoy a privileged relationship to the object – the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don’t have it), or poses a threat to our possession of the object” (p. 8). The characterisation of love in the statement ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ precludes love as a Real experience – namely, as a traumatic experience. This is why he often refers to the dating agencies that offer ‘love without falling in love’ – such agencies exclude the traumatic experience:

“I claim that love, the experience of passionate love, is the most elementary metaphysical experience, it’s a platonic experience. In the sense of, you lead your easy, daily life, you meet friends, go to parties and whatever, everything is normal, maybe here and there a one-night stand, and then you passionately fall in love, everything is ruined.”

(Full video)

Love as traumatic experience

What this ultimately means for the Christian neighbourly love is not necessarily its denial. Zizek claims that the constitution of our identity by the other (by the neighbour) is precisely the location of the Real – i.e. we can access the Real through the neighbour, but this access would be a traumatic one. It is precisely in this sense that the ‘other’ (the Jew, the Arab, the foreigner, etc.; or to make this timelier, the Syrian refugees) is viewed as a threat to our existence. Our attitude towards the other is quite understandable. It is not simply racism or discrimination (which is precisely the liberal jargon to depoliticise the concretely political situation), but rather an existential threat to the very core of the society – its identity.6 The problem is in the approach to the neighbour from the position of trauma, as a threat – but of course Zizek’s point remains that through neighbourly love, we can in fact access our own identity, to have an insight into ourselves through love. The political climate that denies this accessibility merely accepts some idealistic (and ultimately apolitical) notion of humanity. Doing so, however, it also creates an image of the neighbour as less than human. It denies the neighbour their political agency and reduces them to mere behaviourism. Zizek’s reasoning for such a behaviour is not the liberal notion of racism (though he does not deny racism!), but the fear of exposing one’s own vulnerabilities. The fear is that in the mirror of the neighbour one will find their own lack:

it is easy to love the idealized figure of a poor, helpless neighbour, the starving African or Indian, for example; in other words, it is easy to love one’s neighbour as long as he stays far enough from us, as long as there is a proper distance separating us. The problem arises at the moment when he comes too near us, when we start to feel his suffocating proximity—at this moment when the neighbour exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred. (Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom!, p. 8).

when the neighbour exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred Click To Tweet

We find here yet again the paradoxical relation of loving without falling in love – by maintaining a distance with the poor and the helpless, we can take care of them. When we get involved – i.e. in actual fieldwork, etc. – the traumatic experience is too high to bear, the world as we know it shatters, we are given to the traumatic experience.

The ethics of neighbourly love

This traumatic experience is avoided by the current liberal apolitical practice – liberalism emphasises the absoluteness of the ethical values that it holds, they are non-negotiable. Such absoluteness, of course, also leads to a lack of consideration for our political agency, as political agents who affect the world affairs. It is in this light that Zizek’s critique of universalisation of ethical positions can be understood. With the universalisation of ethics, we do not simply exclude the ethics that contradict our own. The fundamental gap is in the exclusion of the unethical – the positions that cannot be universalised (in a Kantian sense), but more fundamentally those that we deem unethical. To put this differently, absoluteness of ethical positions excludes more than a contrary position precisely in the sense that it excludes all positions that do not fit the contemporary social order.


  1. Or, to be more precise, to the multiplicity of its identities. Cf. Laclau & Mouffe, Hegemony And Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics.
  2. I am of course aware that the more commonly translated title is On Genealogy of Morals (which is Kaufmann's translation). Scholars are quite divided on the issue whether it is 'morals' or 'morality', and whether it is 'towards' or 'on'. I do not think Nietzsche's three essays to be more than contributions towards a genealogy, and I don't think he intended them to be more than that - hence my preference for 'towards'. There are, however, good reasons to keep 'on', especially if we keep in mind the many titles in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
  3. Cf. his Against Human Rights (paywall); but you can browse through our sister site, for some brief overviews.
  4. Concentration camps were not, by rule, set far away from civilian populations; some were close enough to see and hear (a mile or two). I feel obliged to mention that the precise amount of camps is not known, though the list nears 1.000. Cf. Jewish Virtual Library.
  5. It is hard to defend such a position, and despite popular belief, hardly any philosopher held such a view – indeed, contra popular belief, I am saying that Nietzsche was not a moral relativist, but that’s for another article.
  6. Or, to be more precise, to the multiplicity of its identities. Cf. Laclau & Mouffe, Hegemony And Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics.

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