Zizek on neighbourly love
Zizek thus asks a couple simple, though still pertinent, questions – on basis of which criteria are positions deemed ethical or unethical? What about historically unethical behaviours that gain ground in contemporary social order? What about the so-called cultural differences? Etc. The answers, at least partial ones, to such questions necessarily lead to a sense of ambiguity on which the criteria for exclusion are built. They lead to a paradoxical detachment from universalisation of what is already claimed to be universal – namely, that the ethics espoused by us is universal as long as it creates an exclusion, a duality ethical/unethical.
It is worthwhile to return here to Nietzsche’s critique of morality. In the first essay on his Towards the Genealogy of Morality,1 we find morality to rest fundamentally on dualities, which are ultimately reduced to good and evil. His genealogical approach to reclaim good and bad (rather than evil) as a distinction can thus be understood as creating a pluralist approach to morality: both evil and bad have a place in moral considerations, as long as neither is universalised. We can thus read Nietzsche as claiming that the moral standards constituting the social order are in fact false dualities – more positions are not only possible, but always exist within the social order. A claim to an absoluteness of ethical values can merely reproduce a false duality of ethical and unethical – but by doing so, it creates an extreme situation whereby the neighbour is fully excluded from the social order. What Zizek tells us is that by approaching love of the neighbour as a traumatic experience, we can follow the Nietzschean trajectory of negating the absolute exclusion based on absoluteness of ethical values.
Love of humanity
The ethics of neighbourly love, and universalisation of ethical values, lead us to their political counterpart in the form of universal human rights. Zizek’s critique of human rights is to be understood in that light.2 To be sure, a critique is not a rejection – Zizek does not aim to act against human rights without reservation. His critique is based on the universalisation, the absoluteness, the unconditional. What is at stake is precisely the notion of loving one’s neighbour and acting to enforce a particular politico-ideological status quo. Zizek thus points out that humanitarian interventions rest on this paradoxical attachment to humanity, while at the same denying the very articulation of the ‘inhuman’ within human action. Were not, in other words, actions of Nazi Germany, or those of Stalinist Russia, acts of love? Zizek’s claim here is very reminiscent of Nietzsche’s lament that we are but ‘human-all-too-human’. Claiming an absoluteness of human endeavour denies the accessibility of the traumatic experience through which our own actions could be understood.
Zizek’s claim is very simply that acts of terror, of dehumanisation, of excessive violence and brutality, reside within the scope of what it is to be human in the first place. Such radical evil is nevertheless ineradicable and deserves a closer attention than mere negation through an absoluteness. As we said before, absolute ethical values do not access the neighbour due the traumatic experience that is inherent through their exclusion. We also referred to the Jew as the archetypal other that was negated: “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” (The Fragile Absolute, p. 8). What we find in Nazi Germany (and in contemporary exclusion of the neighbour, though to a much lesser extent!) is the popularity of depicting the lack of our enjoyment through the lens of the neighbour who threatens it by their mere presence. The Jew, in other words, was deemed as someone (or rather something) who posed a threat to what was deemed already ours, even though whatever it was that we desired was nothing more than an empty promise. And does not the Syrian refugee pose the same threat, and precisely a threat to a promise by our future leaders?
This fantasmatic empty promise is fuelled by, again, the unwillingness to go through the traumatic experience that access to the neighbour holds. It deprives us from taking responsibility (or to put it in Kantian terms, to act autonomously) and place our political agency at the hands of a leader, a Führer. Let us not be mistaken in thinking that Hitler was an exception, we suspend our moral judgment after every election, we suspend our political agency after casting our vote. The typical phrase uttered by civilians after they were shown the concentration camps in Germany was to abstain from responsibility by claiming, ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’ – ‘We didn’t know’. Implausible as that may be, the fact remains that they should have known,3 that suspending their moral judgment for the sake of an empty promise by a leader led to this atrocity.
As Michael Oakeshott notes in his brilliant essay The Masses in Representative Democracy in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (the essay is also published in Freedom and Serfdom, though it is considerably more expensive):
An association of individuals requires a ruler, but it has no place for a ‘leader’. The ‘anti-individual’ needed to be told what to think; his impulses had to be made aware of his power; and these were the tasks of his leaders. Indeed, from one point of view, ‘the masses’ must be regarded as the invention of their leaders (p. 373).
- 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.
- Cf. his Against Human Rights (paywall); but you can browse through our sister site, for some brief overviews.
- 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.