. . . . . . • Smashing the Neighbor's Face •
. . . . . . . . . Slavoj Zizek

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"To seek truth, I have already established a relationship with a face which can guarantee itself, whose epiphany itself is somehow a word of honor. Every language as an exchange of verbal signs refers already to this primordial word of honor. /.../ deceit and veracity already presuppose the absolute authenticity of the face." 1

The key question that poses itself apropos this Levinasian notion of the other's face as the epiphany, as the event that precedes Truth itself, is: how, then, do the law, courts, judgments, institutions, etc., enter? Levinas's answer is: by way of the presence of the THIRD. When face to face with the other, I am infinitely responsible to him, this is the original ethical constellation; however, there is always a third one, and from that moment, new questions arise: how does my neighbor whom I face relate to this Third? Is he the Third's friend or his foe or even his victim? Who, of the two, is my true neighbor in the first place? All this compels me to compare the infinites that cannot be compared, to limit the absolute priority of the other, to start to calculate the incalculable. However, what is important for Levinas is that this kind of legal relationship, necessary as it is, remains grounded in the primordial ethical relationship to the other. The responsibility for the other - the subject as the response to the infinite call embodied in the other's face which is simultaneously helpless, vulnerable, and issuing an unconditional command - is for Levinas asymmetrical and non-reciprocal: I am responsible for the other without having any right to claim that the other should display the same responsibility for me. Levinas likes to quote Dostoyevsky here: "We are all responsible for everything and guilty in front of everyone, but I am that more than all others." The ethical asymmetry between me and the other addressing me with the infinite call is the primordial fact, and 'I" should never lose my grounding in this irreducibly first-person relationship to the other which should go to extreme, if necessary - I should be ready to take responsibility for the other up to take his place, up to become a hostage for him: "Subjectivity as such is primordially a hostage, responsible to the extent that it becomes the sacrifice for others." This is how Levinas defines the "reconciliatory sacrifice": a gesture by means of which the Same as the hostage take the place of (replaces) the Other... Is, however, this gesture of "reconciliatory sacrifice" not Christ's gesture par excellence? Was He not the hostage who took the place of all of us and as such exemplarily human ("ecce homo")?

Far from preaching an easy grounding of politics in the ethics of the respect and responsibility for the Other, Levinas rather insists on their absolute incompatibility, on the gap separating the two dimensions: ethics involves an asymmetric relationship in which I am always-already responsible for the Other, while politics is the domain of symmetrical equality and distributive justice... however, is this solution not all too neat? That is to say, is such a notion of politics not already "post-political," excluding the properly political dimension (on account of which, for Hannah Arendt, tyranny is politics at its purest), in short, excluding precisely the dimension of what Carl Schmitt called political theology? One is tempted to say that, far from being reducible to the symmetric domain of equality and distributive justice, politics I the very "impossible" link between this domain and that of (theological) ethics, the way ethics cuts across the symmetry of equal relations, distorting/displacing them. In his Ethics and Infinity, Levinas emphasizes how what appears as the most natural should become the most questionable - like Spinoza's notion that every entity naturally strives for its self-perseverance, for the full assertion of its being and its immanent powers: do I have (the right) to be? Is it not that by insisting in being, I deprive others of their place, I ultimately kill them? 2 (Although Levinas dismisses Freud as irrelevant for his radical ethical problematic, was Freud also in his own way not aware of it? Is “death drive" at its most elementary not the sabotaging of one's own striving to be, to actualize one's powers-potentials? And is not for that very reason death drive the last support of ethics?) What one should fully acknowledge and endorse is that this stance of Levinas is radically anti-biopolitical: the Levinasian ethics is the absolute opposite of today's biopolitics with its emphasis on regulating life and deploying its potentials - for Levinas, ethics is not about life, but about something MORE than life. It is at this level that Levinas locates the gap that separates Judaism and Christianity - Judaism's fundamental ethical task is that of how "to be without being a murderer":

If Judaism is attached to the here below, it is not because it does not have the imagination to conceive of a supernatural order, or because matter represents some sort of absolute for it; but because the first light of conscience is lit for it on the path that leads from man to his neighbor. What is an individual, a solitary individual, if not a tree that grows without regard for everything it suppresses and breaks, grabbing all the nourishment, air and sun, a being that is fully justified in its nature and its being? What is an individual, if not a usurper? What is signified by the advent of conscience, and even the first spark of spirit, if not the discovery of corpses beside me and my horror of existing by assassination? Attention to others and, consequently, the possibility of counting myself among them, of judging myself - conscience is justice. 3

In contrast to this admission of terrestrial life as the very terrain of our ethical activity, Christianity simultaneously goes too far and not far enough: it believes that it is possible to overcome this horizon of finitude, to enter collectively a blessed state, to "move mountains by faith" and realize a utopia, AND it immediately transposes the place of this blessed state into an Elsewhere, which then propels it to declare our terrestrial life of ultimately secondary importance and to reach a compromise with the masters of this world, giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. The link between spiritual salvation and worldly justice is cut short.

The determination of Judaism as the religion of the Law is to be taken literally: it is the Law at its purest, deprived of its obscene superego supplement. Recall the traditional obscene figure of the father who officially prohibits his son casual sex, while the message between the lines is to solicit him to engage in sexual conquests - prohibition is here uttered in order to provoke its transgression. And, with regard to this point, Paul was wrong in his description of the Law as that which solicits its own violation - wrong insofar as he attributed this notion of the Law to Jews: the miracle of the Jewish prohibition is that it effectively IS just a prohibition, with no obscene message between the lines. It is precisely because of this that Jews can look for the ways to get what they want while literally obeying the prohibition: far from displaying their casuistry and externally-manipulative relationship to the Law, this procedure rather bears witness to the direct and literal attachment to the Law. And it is in this sense that the position of the analyst is grounded in Judaism. Recall Henry James's "The Lesson of the Master," in which Paul Overt, a young novelist, meets Henry St. George, his great literary master, who advises him to stay single, since a wife is not an inspiration but a hindrance. When Paul asks St. George if there are no women who would "really understand - who can take part in a sacrifice," the answer he gets is: "How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice. They're the idol and the altar and the flame." Paul follows St. George's advice and renounces the young Marian whom he passionately loves. However, after returning to London from a trip to Europe, Paul learns that, after the sudden death of his wife, St. George himself is about to marry Marian. After Paul accuses St. George of shameful conduct, the older man says that his advice was right: he will not write again, but Paul will achieve greatness... Far from displaying cynical wisdom, St. George acts as a true analyst: as the one who is not afraid to profit from his ethical choices, i.e., as the one who is able to break the vicious cycle of ethics and sacrifice.

It is possible to break this vicious cycle precisely insofar as one escapes the hold of the superego injunction to enjoy. Traditionally, psychoanalysis was expected to allow the patient to overcome the obstacles which prevented him/her the access to "normal" sexual enjoyment; today, however, when we are bombarded from all sides by the different versions of the superego-injunction "Enjoy!", from direct enjoyment in sexual performance to enjoyment in professional achievement or in spiritual awakening, one should move to a more radical level: psychoanalysis is today the only discourse in which you are allowed NOT to enjoy (as opposed to "not allowed to enjoy"). (And, from this vantage point, it becomes retroactively clear how already the traditional prohibition to enjoy was sustained by the implicit opposite injunction.) This notion of a Law which is not sustained by a superego supplement involves a radically new notion of society - a society no longer grounded in shared common roots:

"Every word is an uprooting. The constitution of a real society is an uprooting - the end of an existence in which the 'being-at-home' is absolute, and everything comes from within. Paganism is putting down roots /.../. The advent of the scriptures is not the subordination of the spirit to a letter, but the substitution of the letter to the soil. The spirit is free within the letter, and it is enslaved within the root. It is on the arid soil of the desert, where nothing is fixed, that the true spirit descended into a text in order to be universally fulfilled.
Paganism is the local spirit: nationalism in terms of its cruelty and pitilessness /.../. A humanity with roots that possesses God inwardly, with the sap rising from the earth, is a forest or prehuman humanity. /.../
A history in which the idea of a universal God must only be fulfilled requires a beginning. It requires an elite. It is not through pride that Israel feels it has been chosen. It has not obtained this through grace. Each time the peoples are judged, Israel is judged. /.../ It is because the universality of the Divine exists only in the form in which it is fulfilled in the relations between men, and because it must be fulfillment and expansion, that the category of a privileged civilization exists in the economy of Creation. This civilization is defined in terms not of prerogatives, but of responsibilities. Every person, as a person - that is to say, one conscious of his freedom - is chosen. If being chosen takes on a national appearance, it is because only in this form can a civilization be constituted, be maintained, be transmitted, and endure.(DF, 137-8)

We are so used to the syntagm Blut und Boden that we tend to forget the split signalled by the und, i.e., the fact that the relationship between the two is that of what Deleuze called "disjunctive synthesis" - what better proof than Jews themselves who are precisely the people of Blut ohne Boden, supplementing the lack of land with the excessive investment into blood relations? It is as if the first and foremost effect of migration is to foreground even more the blood relations, thus violating the basic territorial definition of a modern state: the member of a state is not defined by his/her "blood" (ethnic identity), but by being fully acknowledged as residing in the state's territory - and the state's unity was historically established precisely by the violent erasure of local blood links. In this sense, the modern state as such is the outcome of an "inner migration," of the transubstantiation of one's identity: even if, physically, one does not change one's dwelling, one is deprived of a particular identity with its local color - or, to put it again in Deleuze's terms, state's territory is by definition that of a reterritorialized deterritorialization. And, perhaps, as was made clear in Fascism, violence explodes precisely when one tries to deny the gap and bring together the two dimensions of blood AND soil into a harmonious unity; this bringing-together accounts for the "innocent" tautological formulas of today's neoracists: le Pen's entire program can be summed up in "France to the French!" (and this allows us to generate further formulas: "Germany to Germans!", etc.) - "We do not want anything foreign, we want only what is ours!..."

Jews are constituted by the lack of land, of territory - however, this lack is reinscribed into an absolute longing ("Next year in Jerusalem!"). What about an unconditional uprooting, renunciation of territory? In other words, does the Jewish identity not involve the paradox of the being-uprooted itself functioning as the foundation of ethnic roots and identity? Is there not, consequently, the next step to be accomplished that of forming a collective which no longer relies on an ethnic identity, but is in its very core the collective of a struggling universality? Levinas is right in locating the Jewish universalism in their very non-proselyte stance: Jews do not try to convert all others to Judaism, to impose their particular religious form onto all others, they just stubbornly cling to this form. The true universalism is thus paradoxically this very rejection to impose one's message to all others - in such a way, the wealth of the particular content in which the universal consists is asserted, all others are left to be in their particular ways of life. However, this stance nonetheless involves its own limitation: it reserves for itself a privileged position of a singularity with a direct access to the universal - all people participate in the universality, but Jews are "more universal than others": "The Jewish faith involves tolerance because, from the beginning, it bears the entire weight of all other men."(DF, 173) The Jewish man's burden... In other words, insofar as Jews are absolutely responsible, responsible for all of us, is it not that, at a meta- or reflexive level, we are all doubly responsible to the Jews? Or, in an inverted way, if they are responsible for all of us, is it not that the way to get rid of our responsibility is to annihilate them, i.e., those who condense our responsibility? What is still missing here is the notion (and practice) of antagonistic universality, of the universality as struggle which cuts across the entire social body, of universality as a partial engaged position.

The relationship between Judaism as a formal "spiritual" structure and Jews as its empirical bearers is difficult to conceptualize. The problem is how to avoid the deadlock of the dilemma: either Jews are privileged as an empirical group (which means their spirituality, inaccessible to others, is also ultimately of no relevance to them), or Jews are a contingent bearer of a universal structure - in this case, the dangerous conclusion is at hand that, precisely in order to isolate and assert this formal structure, the "principle" of Jewishness, one has to eliminate, erase, the "empirical" Jews. Furthermore, the problem with those who emphasize how Jews are not simple a nation, an ethnic group, like others, side by side to others, is that, in this very claim, they define Jews in contrast to other "normal" groups, as their constitutive exception. The more standard answer to Levinas's ethic of radical responsibility would have been that one can truly love others only if one loves oneself. However, at a more radical level, is there not something inherently FALSE in such a link between the responsibility for/to the other and questioning one's own right to exist? Although Levinas asserts this asymmetry as universal (everyone of us is in the position of primordial responsibility towards others), does this asymmetry not effectively end up in privileging ONE particular group which assumes responsibility for all others, which embodies in a privileged way this responsibility, directly stands for it - in this case, of course, Jews, so that, again, one is ironically tempted to speak of the “Jewish man's (ethical) burden"?

The idea of a chosen people must not be taken as a sign of pride. It does not involve being aware of exceptional rights, but of exceptional duties. It is the prerogative of a moral consciousness itself. It knows itself at the centre of the world and for it the world is not homogeneous: for I am always alone in being able to answer the call, I am irreplaceable in my assumption of responsibility. (DF, 176-177)

In other words, do we not get here - in a homology with Marx's forms of the expression of value - a necessary passage from simple and developed form (I am responsible for you, for all of you) to the general equivalent and then its reversal (I am the privileged site of responsibility for all of you, which is why you are all effectively responsible to me...)? And is this not the “truth" of such an ethical stance, thereby confirming the old Hegelian suspicion that every self-denigration secretly asserts its contrary? It is like the proverbial white man's excessive Political Correctness of the Western white male who questions his own right to assert his cultural identity, while celebrating the exotic identity of others, thereby asserting his privileged status of the universal-neutral medium of recognizing other's identities... Self-questioning is always by definition the obverse of self-privileging; there is always something false about respect for others which is based on questioning of one's own right to exist.

A Spinozean answer to Levinas would have been that our existence is not at the expense of others, but as part of the network of reality: there is, for Spinoza, no Hobbesian "Self" as extracted from and opposed to reality - Spinoza's ontology is the one of full immanence to the world, i.e., I "am" just the network of my relations with the world, I am totally "externalized" in it. My conatus, my tendency to assert myself, is thus not my assertion at the expense of the world, but my full acceptance of being part of the world, my assertion of the wider reality within which I can only thrive. The opposition of egotism and altruism is thus overcome: I fully am not as an isolated Self, but in the thriving reality part of which I am.

Levinas therefore secretly imputes to Spinoza an egotistic "subjectivist" notion of (my) existence - his anti-Spinozean questioning of my right to exist is inverted arrogance: as if I am the center whose existence threatens all others. So the answer should not be an assertion of my right to exist in harmony with and tolerance of others, but a more radical claim: do I exist in the first place? Am I not, rather, a hole in the order of being? This brings us to the ultimate paradox on account of which Levinas's answer is not sufficient: I am a threat to the entire order of being not insofar as I positively exist as part of this order, but precisely insofar as I am a hole in the order of being - as such, as nothing, I "am" a striving to reach out and appropriate all (only a Nothing can desire to become Everything) - it was already Schelling who defined the subject as the endless striving of the Nothing to become Everything. On the contrary, a positive living being occupying a determinate space in reality, rooted in it, is by definition a moment of its circulation and reproduction. Recall the similar paradox of that structures the Politically Correct landscape: people far from the Western world are allowed to fully assert their particular ethnic identity without being proclaimed essentialist racist identitarians (native Americans, blacks...); the closer one gets to the notorious white heterosexual males, the more problematic this assertion is: Asians are still OK, Italians and Irish maybe, with Germans and Scandinavians it is already problematic... However, such a prohibition of asserting the particular identity of White Men (as the model of oppression of others), although it presents itself as the admission of their guilt, nonetheless confers on them a central position: this very prohibition to assert their particular identity makes them into the neutral medium, the place from which the truth about the others' oppression is accessible.

One should therefore assume the risk of countering Levinas's position with a more radical one: others are primordially an (ethically) indifferent multitude, and love is a violent gesture of cutting into this multitude and privileging a One as the neighbor, thus introducing a radical imbalance into the whole. In contrast to love, justice begins when I remember the faceless many left in shadow in this privileging of the One. Justice and love are thus structurally incompatible: justice, not love, has to be blind, it has to disregard the privileged One whom I “really understand." What this means is that the Third is not secondary: it is always-already here, and the primordial ethical obligation is towards this Third who is NOT here in the face to face relationship, the one in shadow, like the absent child of a love-couple. This not simply the Derridean-Kierkegaardian point that I always betray the Other because toute autre est un autre, because I have to make a CHOICE to SELECT who my neighbor is from the mass of the Thirds, and this is the original sin-choice of love. The structure is similar to the one described by Emile Benveniste apropos verbs: the primordial couple is not active-passive, to which the neutral form is then added, but active and neutral (along the axis of engaged-disengaged). The primordial couple is Neutral and Evil (the choice which disturbs the neutral balance), or, grammatically, impersonal Other and me - "you" is a secondary addition. 4

In order to properly grasp the triangle of love, hatred and indifference, one has to rely on the logic of the universal and its constitutive exception which only introduces existence. The truth of the universal proposition "Man is mortal" does not imply the existence of even one man, while the "less strong" proposition "There is at least one man who exists (i.e., some men exist)" implies their existence. Lacan draws from this the conclusion that we pass from universal proposition (which defines the content of a notion) to existence only through a proposition stating the existence of - not the at least one element of the universal genus which exists, but - at least one which is an exception to the universality in question. What this means with regard to love is that the universal proposition "I love you all" acquires the level of actual existence only if "there is at least one whom I hate" - the thesis abundantly confirmed by the fact that universal love for humanity always led to the brutal hatred of the (actually existing) exception, of the enemies of humanity. This hatred of the exception is the "truth" of universal love, in contrast to true love which can only emerge aganst the background - NOT of universal hatred, but - of universal indifference: I am indifferent towards All, the totality of the universe, and as such, I actually love YOU, the unique individual who stands/sticks out of this indifferent background. Love and hatred are thus not symmetrical: love emerges out of the universal indifference, while hatred emerges out of universal love. In short, we are dealing here again with the formulas of sexuation: "I do not love you all" is the only foundation of "there is nobody that I do not love," while "I love you all" necessarily relies on "I really hate some of you." "But I love you all," defended himself Erich Mielke, the Secret Police boss of the DDR - his universal love was obviously grounded in its constitutive exception, the hatred of the enemies of socialism.

This brings us to the radical anti-Levinasian conclusion: the true ethical step is the one BEYOND the face of the other, the one of SUSPENDING the hold of the face: the choice AGAINST the face, for the THIRD. This coldness IS justice at its most elementary. Every preempting of the Other in the guise of his face relegates the Third to the faceless background. And the elementary gesture of justice is not to show respect for the face in front of me, to be open for its depth, but to abstract from it and refocus onto the faceless Thirds in the background. It is only such a shift of focus onto the Third that effectively uproots justice, liberating it from the contingent umbilical link that renders her »embedded« in a particular situation.In other words, it is only such a shift onto the Third that grounds justice in the dimension of universality proper. When Levinas endeavors to ground ethics in the Other's face, is he not still clinging to the ultimate root of the ethical commitment, afraid to accept the abyss of the rootless Law as the only foundation of ethics? Justice as blind thus means that, precisely, it cannot be grounded in the relationship to the Other's face, i.e., in the relationship to the neighbor: justice is emphatically NOT justice for - with regard to - the neighbor.

This structure is irreducible: it is not that, while, in our empirical lives, the Third is irreducible, we should maintain as a kind of regulative Idea the full grounding of ethics in the relationship to the Other's Face. Such a grounding is not only empirically impossible, it is a priori impossible, since the limitation of our capacity to relate to Other's faces is the mark of our very finitude. In other words, the limitation of our ethical relation of responsibility towards the Other's face which necessitates the rise of the Third (the domain of regulations) is a positive condition of ethics, not simply its secondary supplement. If we deny this - i.e., if we stick to the postulate of a final translatability of the Third into a relation to Other's face -, we remain caught in the »understanding«: one can »understand« everything, even the most hideous crime has an »inner truth and beauty« when observed from within: recall the refined spiritual meditations of the Japanese warriors. There is a weird scene in Hector Babenco's The Kiss of a Spider-Woman: in the German-occupied France, a high Gestapo officer explains to his French mistress the inner truth of the Nazis, how they are guided in what may appear brutal military interventions by an inner vision of breath-taking goodness - we never learn in what, exactly, this inner truth and goodness consist; all that matters is this purely formal gesture of asserting that things are not what they seem (brutal occupation and terror), that there is an inner ethical truth which redeems them... THIS is what the ethical Law prohibits: justice HAS to be blind, ignoring the inner truth. Recall the famous passage from Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory:

When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity - that was a quality God's image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how their hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

However, what this means is that, in order to practice justice, one HAS to suspend one's power of imagination. Levinas is right to point out the ultimate paradox of how "the Jewish consciousness, formed precisely through contact with this harsh morality, with its obligations and sanctions, has learned to have an absolute horror of blood, while the doctrine of non-violence has not stemmed the natural course towards violence displayed by a whole world over the last two thousand years. /.../ Only a God who maintains the principle of Law can in practice tone down its severity and use oral law to go beyond the inescapable harshness of Scriptures."(DF, 138)

But what about the opposite paradox? What if only a God who is ready to subordinate his own Law to love can in practice push us to realize blind justice in all its harshness? Recall how Che Guevara conceived revolutionary violence as a "work of love": "Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality." Therein resides the core of revolutionary justice, this much misused term: harshness of the measures taken, sustained by love. Does this not recall Christ's scandalous words from Luke ("if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes even his own life - he cannot be my disciple"(Luke 14:26)) which point in exactly the same direction as another Che's famous quote? "You may have to be tough, but do not lose your tenderness. You may have to cut the flowers, but it will not stop the Spring." This Christian stance is the very opposite of the Oriental attitude of non-violence which - as we know from the long history of Buddhist rulers and warriors - can legitimize the worst violence. It is not that the revolutionary violence "really" aims at establishing a non-violent harmony; on the contrary, the authentic revolutionary liberation is much more directly identified with violence - it is violence as such (the violent gesture of discarding, of establishing a difference, of drawing a line of separation) which liberates. Freedom is not a blissfully neutral state of harmony and balance, but the very violent act which disturbs this balance.


1 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979.
2 Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillip Nemo, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University, 1985.
3 Levinas, E., Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, Baltimore;Johns Hopkins, 1997.
4 Benveniste, Emile, "The Active and Middle Form in Verbs," in Problems in General Linguistics, Miami: University of Miami, 1973.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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