Ethics and the Moral Law, Part III: Paul and Psychoanalysis

In this final post, I want to explore a psychoanalytic interpretation of St. Paul, developing suggestions by Slavoj Žižek amongst others as to how Paul can be read in this fashion. One way to frame this approach is in terms of this question: what, if anything, constitutes the distinctiveness of moral norms? One answer to that question would be to say that they are individuated by being categorically binding on us, holding irrespective of our desires or projects. The way of taking Paul outlined here would warn against dangers attendant to this conception of moral norms which, in setting up an inflexible standard against which we are judged, leads to unproductive results: namely, a psychic economy ruled by the principle of guilt which encourages us to remain submerged in an unhealthy obsession with our own transgressions of law. As he is presented here, Paul seeks to retain the spirit of an engagement with law—the sanctity of the content of what the law demands—while avoiding the problematic effects of the unconditional injunctions that are imposed through the articulation of this spirit in law. To borrow a phrase from Hegel, his aim is thus taken to be “to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.”

All this raises the question of why, if law is so problematic, it arises in the first place. It is often claimed that moral norms have a special role in regulating our relationship with others. A framework of moral norms introduces a common reference point to allow for planning and co-ordination of actions, especially amongst strangers, as well as supporting valuable behaviour such as reciprocity. Insofar as these norms are articulated in laws—whose formal properties introduce universality and unconditionality to them—then this adds a further measure of stability, increasing the degree and predictability of responsiveness to them. Žižek’s explanation of the origin of law takes this to be important, though not for simple prudential reasons, but rather because it helps erase the traumatic contingency present in the actions of others:

the advent of Law entails a kind of ‘disalienation’: in so far as the Other itself appears submitted to the ‘absolute condition’ of Law, the subject is no more at the mercy of the Other’s whim, its desire is no more totally alienated in the Other’s desire … it opens our access to desire by enabling us to disengage ourselves from the rule of the Other’s whim.

So, the specific problem of negotiating our relation to others calls for a system of law that makes obedience unconditional, seeking to dissociate compliance from our whims. Yet this creates a new problem, for the nature of the injunctions imposed is superegoic. As Jodi Dean explains this aspect of law:

This traumatic, senseless injunction is also the psychoanalytic notion of the superego. Superego issues unconditional commands, telling us what to do, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing even to consider our specific circumstances, needs, or desires.

Here we find a description that seems to be of a piece with morality as construed categorically.

A misconception that it would be easy to arrive at would be to suppose that, insofar as we accept there is a superegoic dimension to law—some oppressive moment within it such that we are brutalised by an insistent challenge to fulfil a set of absolute demands—then Paul’s problem with law would be that it leads to such a stark and demanding task for us. However, matters are more complex given the superego’s equally important ties to enjoyment which arise in two ways. Firstly, the absolute injunctions of the superego are not just occasions for guilt, for there can be a perverse satisfaction in the very act of renouncing one’s ‘official’ desires. Examples of this narcissistic attachment to asceticism abound, from the stereotype of the old Irish woman who is prepared to go to preposterous lengths to accommodate the smallest desires of her guests, to the Nazis described by Arendt who got a kick out of committing acts they genuinely considered to be disgusting and unspeakable but were carried out all in the name of the greater good of the Fatherland. Secondly, one of the injunctions of the superego is itself ‘Enjoy!’, such that we can find ourselves feeling guilty and inadequate if we do not squeeze every drop of satisfaction out of our leisure time, if our social calendar is not brimming over with enticing engagements, and so on. Thus, the superego stands in a complex relation that ties together both guilt and enjoyment. So, on the one hand we have the public moral law whose presuppositions are that although we may find enjoyment in transgressing the law, we will feel guilty if we do. However, the peculiar logic of the superego means that our attitude to the public law is accompanied by an ‘obscene’ underside such that we can equally find enjoyment in renouncing our desires and not transgressing the law, and so too we can feel guilty if we do not follow through on our desires and fail to break the law.

Along these lines, the problem for Paul might then be construed not simply as the fact that we are averse to the weighty impositions of the law but rather that we are simultaneously too attached to them in other respects. Not only does law prohibit sin, it orders our psychic life around what is forbidden—sin becomes a structure for organising one’s enjoyment, which given the haywire network of relations between duty, transgressions of the law, guilt and enjoyment, makes the sinful at once abhorrent and desirable. The way to escape this problem would be to find a way of carrying out the task of the law, which is to manage interpersonal relations, while suppressing the ‘obscene’ underside to law.

Žižek’s suggestion as to what Paul’s solution to this problem is picks up on Paul’s opposition of the law to love. We are to be reconciled to our neighbour by loving them as themselves. Žižek opposes other modes of reconciliation to this model, most notably any approach that tries to bridge the gap between me and others based on the rights of the other. As Dean puts it:

The symbolic neighbour is the abstract subject of rights. Here my respect is ultimately my respect for law, my sense of duty to the law. And this of course reconnects me to my complex relationship to law, my enjoyment of law as well as the enjoyment I get from transgressing it.

Paul’s solution is supposed to be a recommendation to embrace one’s neighbour in their very giveness—including their strangeness, unintelligibility, wickedness, and so on—and not as an abstract subject whose place is delineated by law.

Given that we now begin to relate to our neighbour outside of the framework of law, does this mean that we can simply transgress the law? Perhaps the best way of taking Paul here would be as saying that by radically refusing to interact at a disengaged level, willing only to do one’s duty, to contribute no more than what is due, our relations with people are no longer appropriately measured by the yardstick of law. No doubt we will end up conforming to what the law would have required of us if we fully embrace the maxim of love for one’s neighbour. However, the mode of engagement with the world that made talk of law intelligible will have been superseded—it will be ill-fitting and, moreover, even judging oneself at all by the old standard of law, even if not cleaving to it, risks rehabilitating an unhealthy relation to the notion of sinfulness.

Links: Zizek, Schiller and new blogs

I am a little busy (marking and writing—at least I should be), so here are some links instead of a proper post.

1. Zizek videos

Ecology Without Nature
Materialism and Theology
Rules, Race and Mel Gibson
The Liberal Utopia
The Reality of the Virtual
Liebe dein Sympton wie Dich selbst! (German documentary but mostly in English)
Zizek! (movie documentary)

2. Zizek audio

Here, including his still ongoing ‘Embedded in Ideology’ masterclass.

3. Inquiry

The new issue of Inquiry is out, with a symposium on Fred Beiser’s recent book on Schiller. For anyone who does not already have a copy, an electronic version of Schiller’s intensely wonderful ‘Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man’ is available here.

There’s also an article on McDowell’s idealism by Adrian Haddock. I can’t seem to get access to it via Athens at the moment for some reason, so if someone could e-mail me a pdf of the Haddock article then I’d be grateful.

4. New Blogs

My friends Tom and Megan have recently started philosophy blogs here and here. There’s not a great deal on either of them yet, but I am sure there’ll be plently of interest up there soon enough for those of you into your philosophy of language and political theory respectively. Also deserving of mention are two newish blogs with more or less self-explanatory titles, meaning is use and A blog about social practices.

Rilke on Badiou

Zizek’s opposition to post-secular thought is made manifest in his reversal of Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history:

The puppet called ‘theology’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the service of historical materialism, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.

But I think he, along with Badiou, still falls foul of a straight reading of the original thesis: that their historical materialism relies on an illegitimate theological supplement. We must be careful about raising a wholesale objection to their engagement with the religious tradition though, for it is not that which is the problem. Badiou’s book on Saint Paul and the foundations of universalism is wonderful in the round. But I cannot accept its central pillar as an independent position, namely the theory of the Event. I won’t say much about this here since others have written at length about the unacceptably mysterious relation between Events and their grounds and ‘sites’, or for Zizek the conditions of the Act (for example, Sinthome over at Larval Subjects and Alex Callinicos in The Resources of Critique). Of course, the inexplicability of such Events or Acts are their whole point, defined as they are as a break with an anterior structure that seems to exhaust the current field of possibilites. Edifying as such theories might be (though I have my doubts) in their implicit message that endless theorising is in vain without practical action, the further relation that they posit between theory and practice is unacceptable. But enough of all that for now.

Here I simply want to draw your attention to Rilke’s poem ‘The Angel’, which, almost entirely whimsically, I like to read as a comment on Badiou.

The Angel

He shakes his head as if he would dismiss
whatever might confine him or constrain him –
for each gigantic heartbeat brings more close
the huge event — forever orbiting.

All heaven shouts and swarms with presences
ready to summon him: Come! See and witness!
But do not burden with your heaviness
his weightless hands, for they would break your doors

and, raging in the night from room to room,
would seize you and search deep into your heart,
wrench you about as if to give you form –
at last would break your mould, would lift you out.

– Rilke, Neue Gedichte, trans. S. Cohn

Spinozist Joy and the Materialism of Public Space

A very welcome return of k-punk to political-philosophical analysis to be found in a blistering post here. He weaves together a discussion of affect and paternalism with reference to Supernanny and the role of the BBC, going on to bring a Spinozistic materialism to bear on the problem of the failure of late capitalism (with much more besides). Not to be missed!

Indeterminate Thoughts on Determinate Negation

Note: I have been somewhat pre-empted before finishing this post by NP’s redemption of a promise to write on a similar topic here (see also Sinthome’s reply). Hopefully, there should not be too much redundancy in the content here though.

Given the recent discussions of Zizek’s use of negation (links at antigram), now might be a good time for me to set out some of my own thoughts on this concept. To begin then, consider Steve Shaviro’s suggestion with respect to what is really at stake in the argument:

The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension.

It is readily understandable how this sentiment might arise in response to Zizek’s often lazy and predictable — if still occasionally electrifying — negative formulations. The pattern is a familiar one, with Zizek’s infamous rhetorical inversion being along these lines: “Amongst all quarters, today there is no more universally acknowledged assumption than this, but is not precisely the opposite the case?” (Incidentally, compare Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such-and-such] but I say to you [this-other-thing]“) Thus, we get complaints that Zizek remains parasitic upon the very object of his critique such that he can effect only a mere reversal of an existing element or tendency whilst what must remain unchallenged for him is the thematisation of the field of possibilities into which the critical intervention takes place. The call for ‘obliqueness’ is a call for a creative reconceptualisation of these possibilities that does not remain trapped within the internal logic immanent to an already given individuation of the elements of the situation. Insofar as Zizek’s contrarian impulses remain wedded to such a logic — merely inverting the conclusions arrived at within its strictures — then they are thought to be unable to fashion us with an adequately rich and productive mode of critique.

Setting aside the question of how fair this is as a characterisation of Zizek’s avowed or implicit methodology, we can go on to identify it as being just one form of negation. To cast matters in Hegelian terms, it belongs to the broad class of negativity proper to the dialectic: it is determinate negation. For negation to be determinate is for it to have a content and so for it to be intentional, thus being the negation of one thing but not another.

By way of contrast, indeterminate negation would be negativity without ties to the specific character of the negated object. We might go on to delineate two possible modes of this indeterminate (or ‘mere‘) negation. The first of these would stem from the nature of the normative standard employed in the critique that precludes any real engagement with the determinate features of the object. Here, for example, we might group scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism, which in their own ways negate the object abstractly — a rejection pre-determined by the very co-ordinates the critique would take place within that entails that no matter what the object is it can never qualify as the True, the Good or the Righteous.

A second mode of mere negation would fail to treat the object with the requisite specificity through a failure to relate it to the conditions that make its appearance a necessity; an error Hegel introduces us to in the very first passages of the Phenomenology (Preface, 2). One of the multiple reasons why this negativity remains shallow is that it is left with meagre resources to explain falsity and semblance. That is, given that the object of critique has been discovered to be somehow inadequate, we are faced with the question of why no-one had realised this heretofore. Is it that people ‘just have’ been mistaken or are stupid or exceedingly gullible? The systematic regularity of such purported ‘errors’ calls for a more precise examination of the conditions undergirding them such that we do not remain content to wield an external critical standard, judging upon truth and falsity without accounting for the necessity (or for the faint-hearted, increased probability) of these so-called mistakes. This will involve critique in the task of determinate negation which proceeds to engage in a qualitative (i.e. more fully ‘contentful’) investigation of the negated object.

With respect to Zizek, I want to raise two intertwined potential criticisms — ones that, for now, remain both hesitantly put forward and very underdeveloped — that would stem from a possible failure of his work to meet the standards immanent to determinate negation (presuming that it is this sort of negation that can be taken to be the correct characterisation of Zizek’s methodology). That is, I want to suggest that there is a mismatch between his existing practice and the standards proper to that practice qua critical determinate negation — that at heart it remains mere negation. (This is a slightly different charge than that Zizek is involved in a simple performative contradiction whereby he does one thing but says he does another: rather, it is a more Hegelian one that does not necessarily shy away from the ‘non-coincidence’ of object and concept of the sort challenged by Sinthome here, although I cannot defend this position fully in this post.) My broader intention in doing so is to mount a limited defence of the concept of negativity, showing that even if Zizek’s employment of negativity is problematic, this may not be too much of an issue for its prospects as a critical concept in general.

Firstly, I want to echo a sentiment often expressed with respect to Zizek — that his analyses are sometimes somehow ‘mechanical’ and overly formulaic — but to try and situate this criticism in terms of falling short of the determinacy required for dialectical negation. As a preliminary, an obvious criticism should be raised that would claim that it was perverse to challenge Zizek over a lack of determinacy in his work; for who spends more time than he does examining concrete phenomena? And this is combined with the eschewing of disengaged philosophical and psychoanalytic abstractions insofar as they remain divorced from the details of pop culture, political history, academic trends and so on ad infinitum. However, taking the recent review of 300 as an example, arguably Zizek does not really thoroughly engage with the content of the film and its leftist analysis, effectively remaining at the level of a formal operation of reversal. In one sense the analysis does involve a determinate negation, taking the conventional leftist wisdom about the film (as homophobic, racist, etc.) and inverting it into its opposite (the film as depicting militant communist struggle, as exemplifying the true political opposition to rightist forces). The result is something determinate — the claim that in a sense the film champions the socialist cause or its central values. Yet, insofar as it remains tied to this formal operation of reversal it reproduces the internal structure of the leftist critique; all the elements of the film read it as a deeply politicised battle between left and right remain in place, only the Master-valency is reversed. Again, the structure remains the same — ‘obliqueness’ is absent.

Thus, there is a limited analogy to be drawn between the first mode of indeterminate negation outlined above and my characterisation of Zizek as often engaging in merely formal operations of reversal. The analogy falls short since there is a determinate result of the critique — its negations are not empty ones but fashion us with a negation-of-something and a specific result, being some sort of ‘reversal’ of the initial object of critique. Yet, the stance embodied has a certain similarity to those of scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism in that it does not treat its object in its full specificity, in this case merely latching on to its fixed formal relations and not its full content. This means that its results are more-or-less preset, lacking a certain critical flexibility. In this respect this mode of critique is like a mathematical function.

Furthermore, if it is not unreasonable to render this employment of negation as analogous to a function or operation then my second point might begin to be able to be formulated, if still very sketchily. Prompted by some of Hegel’s remarks in the superb Introduction of the Phenomenology, there may be a way of formulating analysis in the form of negativity such that it avoids the criticism of leading to stale, acute and stodgily reactionary results. To see this we can contrast my crude sketch of some of Zizek’s uses of negation with the sort that Hegel seems to point to. So, I have claimed that often Zizek seems stuck on, as it were, a singular ‘field’ of analysis, left to rearrange its ‘elements’ but not to break out of an already-given individuation of those elements. (Evidently I am struggling and failing to find the right vocabulary here!)

The way that Hegel seems to envision the role of negativity within the dialectic is as marking a gap between the object and its essence or concept (Notion, Begriff) — its explicit properties being ‘out of joint’ with its implicit nature. In terms of the forms of consciousness and the world that are met in the Phenomenology this means that they are not ‘identical’ in- and for-themselves (anundfürsich) and so are not ‘at home’ (zu Hause). What arguably prevents this from degenerating into an extravagant metaphysical essentialism is a certain situational embededness (the word ‘perspective’ is inappropriate here for numerous reasons) of the so-called essence; it is somehow relative (or rather, immanent) to the field that the object is individuated within and does not mark a pure thing-in-itself external to this field.

So, one way of casting the difference between what Hegel might want to do and what I have characterised Zizek as sometimes doing would be as follows. For Hegel, negation marks the need to radically transform the analytic field, whereas for Zizek it is often just a move within this fixed field. (Hegel is notoriously sceptical of attempts merely to fix dumb reality so that it matches up with its underlying ideal: deficiencies in objects are deficiencies in their concepts.) So, I would claim that the notion of negativity in play for Hegel implies the need for the very ‘obliqueness’ that can seem lacking in Zizek, requiring upon a discovery of the object failing to meet its essence a reconceptualisation of what the object is, where this involves a transformation of the normative standards by which the object is judged. Yet, in reformulating the problematic in light of such negation we are not left with only the flash of creative genius nor a mad scrabble in the dark for new values. By thematising the conditions that have conditioned the history of critique hitherto we can place previous failures in some sort of developmental process (perhaps even a necessary one) that indicates the most promising successor which would hold the most hope in avoiding previous problems.

A coda: again, my own critical stance seems to be insufficiently situated here according to the criterion I gesture towards — but that will have to wait.