Sunday, March 9, 2014

Decentering Humanity: The Ethics of the Subjective Objective

          In the famous 1939 Film, The Wizard of Oz, we follow Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow into the great wizard’s palace where they must confront the seemingly powerful being. Upon his assertions of his own supreme power and that they must do his will because he is so powerful we are then confronted with the truth as Toto pulls away the curtain to the main characters’ left: There is no Wizard of Oz, only a man behind the curtain pulling levers and controlling the appearance of the ominous presence that is before them. But this twist is exactly what we all expect: Wizard or not, we are not in control but it is the powers that be that seem to exert control over us. To put forth what would have been an extremely upsetting twist The Wizard of Oz would have needed Toto to reveal that there was not even a man behind the curtain, instead there was nothing. The Wizard was simply a figurehead who only served as the embodiment of control. In a similar way, the truth of Christianity reveals the same truth: God is a figurehead that allows humanity to see itself as the ultimate controller. Christianity takes a more radical turn though as Christ on the cross is crucified and the curtain that shields us from the ultimate Truth hiding within the Holy of Holies is torn down the middle revealing the truth that humanity desires to never confront: There is nothing behind the curtain. I argue that the radical truth of Christianity is this revelation and that it immediately decenters of humanity, forcing us to confront the idea of meaning through ethics that we have used God to provide for.
            Slavoj Žižek writes in The Puppet and the Dwarf that “behind the curtain of public text, there is only what we put there” (127). This is simply to say that there is what is, but beyond that we make it what we want it to be. What the figurehead of God actually does is center and elevate us to the point in which everything we do is of ultimate concern. Our underlying mentality is to always find the secret meaning that is within everything. One must go no further than conspiracy theories to see that people do not accept what is revealed to them as most obvious and instead choose to substitute their own realities, whether believable or outlandish. Religion is the invention of humanity that allows us to be “ultimately concerned” (Tillich 1). However, God is the mechanism in which we proclaim our own acts as ultimately concerning. The truly radical truth of Christianity is that it proclaims that our own acts do not actually have any repercussions beyond what happens within life itself. Christianity kills God himself in order to end the total narcissism that was the act of being ultimately concerned with every single action. However, rather than this opening up supreme nihilism, we find that it is actually a rescue from it. The decentering of humanity results in an uplifting of life itself and a possibility of redemption from misinterpretation of our situation.
            Žižek reveals to us the proper nature of Christianity in his reading of the Old Testament book of Job:

Job’s properly ethical dignity lies in the way he persistently rejects the notion that his suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for his past sins or the trial of his faith, against three theologians who bombard him with possible meanings… God takes his side at the end, claiming that every word Job spoke was true, while every word the three theologians spoke was false. (125)

Most importantly Žižek divorces the idea of meaning from the suffering. This once again removes the state of being ultimately concerned about our own actions. What "God" causes us to do in a confessional setting is to apply extreme narcissism to every action, but this is disavowed unless one admits to the revealed truth of Christianity. Alain Badiou notes a similar aspect when inspecting the foundation of the ethic of human rights. He writes:

We posit a general human subject, such that whatever evil befalls him is universally identifiable (even if this universality often goes by the altogether paradoxical name of ‘public opinion’), such that this subject is both, on the one hand, a passive, pathetic, or reflexive subject – he who suffers – and, on the other, the active, determining subject of judgment – he who, in identifying suffering, knows that it must be stopped by all available means. (9)

With the idea of God making the state of our own actions ultimate concerning this allows humanity, as Badiou points out, to assume a dual position as both passive and active.
            This passive and active state I believe is a direct result of the idea of God and brings us back to my original example of Oz. The wizard itself is not the one who possesses the power, but is instead the placeholder in which we have placed all the power we do not want to admit we possess. In the same way it is not God who possesses obscene power, but it is instead us. When we sit in passivity we use reflexivity to provide meaning to the events that occur. This is the idea behind Žižek’s title. It is the “key distinction between symbolic history… and its obscene Other, the unacknowledgeable… fantasmatic, secret history that actually sustains [history]” (Žižek 128). The puppet that is theology can be “seen” making its rounds and being the cause of everything. It is assigning ultimate relevance to all things and assuring that what is happening has a point that may or may not be known now, but will certainly be known later. It seems perfectly obvious as “the power of this doctrine rests, at first glance, in its self-evidence” (Badiou 9). But the truth is more cunning than the puppet. The puppet provides for history to be thoroughly self-centered, but what is revealed by Christianity, according to Žižek, is the ultimate decentering of humanity in the scope of both ourselves and history. “What is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content, but, more specifically, that there is nothing – no secret – behind it to be revealed(Žižek 127). Nothing is weaving the web that is everything, it simply is.
            But we deny the idea of historical materialism in our drive for power. For if we take God out of the picture we fear actually to lose the power that is driving everything. Badiou points out that this is revealed in Psychoanalysis: “I delight in the exteriority of the other in so far as he figures as myself made visible to myself” (21). The exteriority of the other (which is only a mirror of myself) allows humanity to create themselves as the ultimate center of the universe whilst maintaining that this center is actually God. The curtain, rather than separating us from the thing that is radically and wholly other, instead serves as a barrier so that we cannot encounter the Thing that is more real than we are. As Žižek points out during in his reading of the Fall of Man, “ if we take these statements literally, the unavoidable conclusion is that the moment of the Fall (the forgetting of the ancient wisdom) coincides with its exact opposite – with the longed-for next step in evolution” (85). This is a reading that rather than showing humanity’s bifurcation with the divine instead shows it as historical materialism's revealed logical next step. What Žižek’s reading of the Fall shows us is that we separated ourselves from the divine (our idea of the center of all meaning) in order so that we could actually center ourselves. What we misinterpreted was actually whether or not this was truly a decentering. What historical materialism reveals is that it was not. What we have done by centering ourselves through the appearance of decentering is create the avenue for a subjective “objective”.
            As Badiou points out, “there is not, in fact, one single Subject, but as many subjects as there are truths” (28). In our decentering of ourselves in order to center ourselves we have produced a subjective “objective.” This is to say that what we have constituted as objective is only objective because we, the possessors of ultimate meaning, deem it so in our now Subjective experience. We decide the meaning of things and therefore decide what an objective experience is ultimately. We do not accept our own inconsistency and therefore create a supreme other to ultimately take in to provide ourselves with the ultimate authority. Žižek follows Badiou’s thought: “Once Kant discovers the inner inconsistency of our experiential reality, he feels compelled to posit the existence of another, inaccessible, true reality of Things-in-themselves, instead of accepting this inconsistency” (70-71). We desire an absolute truth among all things to provide an ultimate meaning to all of existence. Yet, this is precisely what the truth Christianity denies.
                 In modern religion and belief we see that “the subject avoids its constitutive splitting by positing itself directly as the instrument of the Other’s Will” (29). However, both Badiou and Žižek reveal a deeper truth about the human situation. Badiou dismantles the idea of an absolute ethic by showing that the idea results from a false objectivity. In similar fashion Žižek shows the idea of God to be a (r)evolutionary function of humanity to assert ideals and meaning that Christianity deconstructs to reveal an utter nothing. The critique Christianity offers is one that is unique to religion. Rather than being a rendering of Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, it actually subverts such a definition and resituates the definition as the problem to begin with. What remains to be seen is whether or not humanity can handle itself as truly decentered.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics. New York: Verso, 2012.
Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

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