I’m currently enjoying one of Zizek’s new books, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce – an allusion to Marx’s introduction to his Eighteenth Brumaire in which he wrote:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
This, then, is Zizek’s dissection of the global financial crisis, undertaken with his usual array of linguistic and philosophical scalpels.
Reaction to the banking crisis, as Zizek outlines, was often typified by the Pope’s injunction to fight against the culture of excessive greed and consumption. Zizek sees a big problem in this: by ‘fighting against the culture of excessive greed’ we are inscribing greed and over-consumption as personal sin and private psychological propensity:
“The self-propelling circulation of Capital thus remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled, since it controls our activity.”
Extending this view, Zizek then critiques the idea that ‘the proper way to fight the demonization of the Other is to subjectivize him, to listen to his story.’ In other words, the adage that ‘an enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard’ is wrong. Supporting this, he asks us:
“Is one then also ready to affirm that Hitler was an enemy only because his story had not been heard? Do the details of his personal life redeem the horrors that resulted from his reign?”
I think there is an problem with his argument here – a failure to understand that the empathetic relationship within the idea of friendship has to work both ways. Of course, one could not consider Hitler a ‘friend’ if he continued to act in the ways that he did. But in true friendship we changed, and perhaps if we had befriended him as a younger man, we might have been able to draw him away from the path that he eventually took. To assume otherwise is to isolate him, to fetishize him, to deny him any ability to change. Now, it may be that he was truly psychopathic and therefore totally unable to do so, in which case no friendship would even be possible.
Zizek then brings in another example, of an Israeli soldier who, on finding out that the Palestinian family whose house he was overseeing demolition of had a child with the same name as him, took his wallet out and showed them photos – but still went ahead with his duties. Again, Zizek is critical of the ‘befriending an enemy’ position, but again the point is that the power-relationship between soldier and oppressed family meant that no friendship was possible, and thus no symbiotic empathetic flow either.
So is my enemy simply someone whose story I have not yet heard? Perhaps, but only if that enemy, that ‘other’ is someone with whom friendship is actually possible – someone who has the psychological capacity for reciprocal relationship, and someone with whom there is some level of power equality.
What this might mean theologically is something that I might look at in another post…