Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief

Slavoj Zizek


The credentials of those who, even prior to its release, virulently criticize Mel Gibson's new film on the last 12 hours of Christ's life, seem impeccable: are they not fully justified in their worry that the film, made by a fanatic Catholic traditionalist with occasional anti-Semitic outbursts, may ignite anti-Semitic sentiments? More general, is Passion not a kind of manifesto of our own (Western, Christian) fundamentalists and anti-secularists? Is then not the duty of every Western secularist to reject it? Is such an unambiguous attack not a sine qua non if we want to make it clear that we are not covert racists attacking only the fundamentalism of other (Muslim) cultures?

The Pope's ambiguous reaction to the film is well known: immediately after seeing it, deeply moved, he muttered "It is as it was!" — and this statement was quickly withdrawn by the official Vatican speakers. A glimpse into the Pope's spontaneous reaction was thus quickly replaced by the "official" neutral stance, corrected in order not to hurt anyone. This shift is the best exemplification of what is wrong with liberal tolerance, with the Politically Correct fear that anyone's specific religious sensibility may be hurt: even if it says in the Bible that the Jewish mob demanded the death of Christ, one should not stage this scene directly, but play it down and contextualize it to make it clear that Jews are collectively not to be blamed for the Crucifixion... The problem of such a stance is that, in this way, the aggressive religious passion is merely repressed: it remains there, smoldering beneath the surface and, finding no release, gets stronger and stronger.

In November 2002, George Bush came under attack by the right wing members of his own party for what was perceived as too soft a stance on Islam: he was reproached for repeating the mantra that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, this great and tolerant religion. As a column in The Wall Street Journal put it, the true enemy of the United States is not terrorism, but militant Islam. Consequently, one should gather the courage and proclaim the politically incorrect (but, nonetheless, obvious) fact that there is a deep strain of violence and intolerance in Islam — that, to put it bluntly, something in Islam resists the acceptance of the liberal-capitalist world order. It is here that a truly radical analysis should break with the standard liberal attitude: no, one should NOT defend Bush here - his attitude is ultimately no better than that of Cohen, Buchanan, Pat Robertson and other anti-Islamists — both sides of this coin are equally wrong. It is against this background that one should approach Oriana Fallaci's The Rage and the Pride, this passionate defense of the West against the Muslim threat, this open assertion of the superiority of the West, this denigration of Islam not even as a different culture, but as barbarism (entailing that we are not even dealing with a clash of civilizations, but with a clash of our civilization and Muslim barbarism). The book is stricto sensu the obverse of Politically Correct tolerance: its lively passion is the truth of lifeless PC tolerance.

Within this horizon, the only "passionate" response to the fundamentalist passion is aggressive secularism of the kind displayed recently by the French state where the government prohibited wearing all too conspicuous religious symbols and dresses in schools (not only the scarves of Muslim women, but also the Jewish caps and too large Christian crosses). It is not difficult to predict what the final result of this measure will be: excluded from the public space, the Muslims will be directly pushed to constitute themselves as non-integrated fundamentalist communities. This is what Lacan means when he emphasized the link between the rule of post-revolutionary fraternité and the logic of segregation.

And, perhaps, the prohibition to embrace a belief with a full passion explains why, today, "culture" is emerging as the central life-world category. Religion is permitted — not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular "culture" or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express our innermost feelings and attitudes. We no longer "really believe," we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the "life-style" of the community to which we belong (recall the proverbial non-believing Jew who obeys kosher rules "out of respect for tradition"). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: what is a "cultural life-style" if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, "culture" is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously." Is this not also the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture — it is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as "barbarians," as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture — they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance towards it. Recall the outrage when, three years ago, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan dynamited the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us, enlightened Westerners, believed in the divinity of Buddha, we were so outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show the appropriate respect for the "cultural heritage" of their own country and the entire humanity. Instead of believing through the other like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion and thus had no great sensitivity for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions — for them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not "cultural treasures." (And, incidentally, is this outrage not the same as that of today's enlightened anti-Semite who, although he does not believe in Christ's divinity, nonetheless blames Jews for killing our Lord Jesus? Or as the typical secular Jew who, although one does not believe in Jehova and Moses as his prophet, nonetheless thinks that Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel?)

Jacques Lacan's definition of love is "giving something one doesn't have" - what one often forgets is to add the other half which completes the sentence: "... to someone who doesn't want it." This is confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declared passionate love to us — is not the first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us? This is why, ultimately, passion as such is "politically incorrect": although everything seems permitted, prohibitions are merely displaced. Recall the deadlock of sexuality or art today: is there anything more dull, opportunistic, and sterile than to succumb to the superego injunction of incessantly inventing new artistic transgressions and provocations (the performance artist masturbating on stage or masochistically cutting himself, the sculptor displaying decaying animal corpses or human excrements), or to the parallel injunction to engage in more and more "daring" forms of sexuality... In some "radical" circles in the US, there came recently a proposal to "rethink" the rights of necrophiliacs (those who desire to have sex with dead bodies) — why should they be deprived of it? So the idea was formulated that, in the same way people sign permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes in the case of their sudden death, one should also allow them to sign the permission for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with them... Is this proposal not the perfect exemplification of how the PC stance realizes Kierkegaard's old insight into how the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor? A dead neighbor — a corpse — is the ideal sexual partner of a "tolerant" subject trying to avoid any harassment: by definition, a corpse cannot be harassed...

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight...)? Along the same lines, what the Politically Correct tolerance is giving us is a decaffeinated belief: a belief which does not hurt anyone and does not fully commit even ourselves.

Everything is permitted to today's hedonistic Last Man - you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. This is why Lacan was right to turn around Dostoyevski's well-known motto: "If God doesn't exist, everything is prohibited!" God is dead, we live in a permissive universe, you should strive for pleasures and happiness — but, in order to have a life full of happiness and pleasures, you should avoid dangerous excesses, be fit, live a healthy life, not harass others... so everything is prohibited if it is not deprived of its substance, and you end up leading a totally regulated life. And the opposite also holds: if there is God, then everything is permitted — to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of His will. Clearly, a direct link to God justifies our violation of any "merely human" constraints and considerations (as in Stalinism, where the reference to the big Other of historical Necessity justifies absolute ruthlessness).

Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint — it is no longer the old notion of the "right measure" between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine. It is no longer "Drink coffee, but with moderation!"; it is rather "Drink all the coffee you want, because it is already decaffeinated..." The ultimate example of this stance is chocolate laxative, available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!" - i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation. And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking...) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today's "biopolitics." Solutions are here desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is "safe sex" — a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying "Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?" The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaf coffee, to invent "opium without opium": no wonder marijuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it — it already IS a kind of "opium without opium".

The structure of the "chocolate laxative," of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine today's liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment — in short, the Other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the Other is not really Other... This is what is more and more emerging as the central "human right" in late-capitalist society: the right not to be harassed, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance from the others. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK IF it is counteracted with charitable activities — first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy... And the same goes for war, for the emerging logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy and human rights: it is OK if human rights are "rethought" to include torture and a permanent emergency state, if democracy is cleansed of its populist "excesses"...

In our era of over-sensitivity for "harassment" by the Other, every ethical pressure is experienced as a false front of the violence of power. This stance gives rise to the effort to "rewrite" religious injunctions, making them adequate to our specific condition. Is some command too severe? Let us reformulate it in accordance with our sensitivities! "Thou shalt not commit adultery!" - except if it is emotionally sincere and serves the goal of your profound self-realization... Exemplary is here Donald Spoto's The Hidden Jesus, a New Age tainted "liberal" reading of Christianity, where we can read apropos of divorce: "Jesus clearly denounced divorce and remarriage. /.../ But Jesus did not go further and say that marriages cannot be broken /.../ nowhere else in his teaching is there any situation when he renders a person forever chained to the consequences of sin. His entire treatment of people was to liberate, not to legislate. /.../ It is self-evident that in fact some marriages simply do break down, that commitments are abandoned, that promises are violated and love betrayed." Sympathetic and "liberal" as these lines are, they involve the fatal confusion between emotional ups and downs and an unconditional symbolic commitment which is supposed to hold precisely when it is no longer supported by direct emotions. What Spoto is effectively saying is: "Thou shalt not divorce - except when your marriage 'in fact' breaks down, when it is experienced as an unbearable emotional burden that frustrates your full life" - in short, except when the prohibition to divorce would have regained its full meaning (since who would divorce when his/her marriage still blossoms?)!

Does this mean that, against the false tolerance of the liberal multiculturalism, we should return to religious fundamentalism? The very ridicule of Gibson's film makes clear the impossibility of such a solution. Gibson first wanted to shoot the film in Latin and Aramaic and to show it without subtitles; under the pressure of distributors, he later decided to allow English (or other) subtitles. However, this compromise on his part is not just a concession to the commercial pressure; sticking to the original plan would rather directly display the self-refuting nature of Gibson's project. That is to say, let us imagine the film without subtitles shown in a large American suburban mall: the intended fidelity to the original would turn it into its opposite, into an incomprehensible exotic spectacle.

But there is a third position, beyond religious fundamentalism and liberal tolerance. Let us return to the "politically correct" distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam: Bush and Blair (and even Sharon) never forget to praise Islam as a great religion of love and tolerance which has nothing to do with the disgusting terrorist acts... In the same way that this distinction between "good" Islam and "bad" Islamic terrorism is a fake, one should also render problematic the typical "radical-liberal" distinction between Jews and the State of Israel or Zionism, i.e., the effort to open up the space in which Jews and Jewish citizens of Israel will be able to criticize the State of Israel's politics and Zionist ideology not only without being accused of anti-Semitism, but, even more, formulating their critique as based on their very passionate attachment to Jewishness, on what they see as worth saving in the Jewish legacy. Is, however, this enough? Marx said about the petit-bourgeois that he sees in every object two aspects, bad and good, and tries to keep the good and fight the bad. One should avoid the same mistake in dealing with Judaism: the "good" Levinasian Judaism of justice, respect for and responsibility towards the other, etc., against the "bad" tradition of Jehova, his fits of vengeance and genocidal violence against the neighboring people. One should gather the courage to transpose the gap, the tension, into the very core of Judaism: it is no longer the question of defending the pure Jewish tradition of justice and love for the neighbor against the Zionist aggressive assertion of the Nation-State. Along the same lines, instead of celebrating the greatness of true Islam against its misuse by fundamentalist terrorists, or of bemoaning the fact that, of all great religions, Islam is the one most resistant to modernization, one should rather conceive this resistance as an open chance: it does not necessarily lead to "Islamo-Fascism," it can also be articulated into a Socialist project. Precisely because Islam harbors the "worst" potentials of the Fascist answer to our present predicament, it can also turn out to be the site for the "best".

Instead of trying to redeem the pure ethical core of a religion against it political instrumentalizations, one should thus ruthlessly criticize this very core — in ALL religions. Today, when religions themselves (from the New Age spirituality to the cheap spiritualist hedonism of Dalai Lama) are more than ready to serve the postmodern pleasure-seeking, it is paradoxically only a consequent materialism which is able to sustain a truly ascetic militant ethical stance.