More on Slavoj Zizek's "Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?", my current main philosophy reading. One of Zizek's most interesting challenges for me is that he is far more well-read than I am on the classics, and he makes very heavy usage of them in his writings. This isn't the philosophical classics, but rather Greek plays, Shakespeare, and similar - I admire his broadness of interest, and regret that I'm simply not educated enough on such topics to follow him when he uses them as examples for points he's making. Some time back, a friend defended to me (probably either Debb or Leon, I don't recall) the importance of Torah to secular Jewish culture, not as something true or as a guide for ethics, but rather to provide a rich body of work that can act to make discussions on philosophy/politics/literature more concrete - by saying someone is like Oedipus, and perhaps by constructing one's own "Theory of Oedipus", one has something more approachable than talking theory in the terms of theory, with ideally little or no loss in clarity. The degree to which it might colour the theoretical discussion notwithstanding, there seems to be an important point there. For people who want to be well-read on a number of things, it can become important to achieve a number of different cultural literacies by reading and familiarising oneself with many foundational works. I conclude that, at least if I really want to understand Zizek's examples, I have a lot more to learn. Somehow, though it's disappointing, it makes me admire him a bit more -- being told (directly or indirectly) that I have a lot to learn, having it be actually true (as opposed to it being an empty argument ploy/insult), and having it be clear what I need to do to remedy my ignorance is refreshing.
There's a bit more though -- one thing I don't like is that, at least as I read what appears on page 139 of my copy, he adopts what's come to be known as the Marxist interpretation of history (in opposition to Marx's comments on the matter) -- he suggests that economics are central to all human conflict. This has always struck me as self-serving, as if to say "there's only one real problem with the world, and we Marxists have the answer". Marx stressed that Communist movements must adopt a scientific approach to history, that while we should look at economics first when understanding conflict, it is not the last or only place we should look. Communist doctrine, as I understand, offers no hints as to how to approach a number of non-property-related matters, such as abortion, gay union, or construction of a civil code.
Zizek and I seem to be on the same page on some topics - to paste together a few quotes from page 171 to page 181 in my copy of the book,
- When we change legal norms in order to accommodate them to the "new demands of reality" (say, when "liberal" Catholics "realistically" make a partial "concession to new times" and allow for contraception, if it takes place within maritial intercource), we deprive the law, a priori, of its dignity..
- and, commenting on a liberal interpretation of the endability of marriage):
- 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: "Thou shalt not divorce - except when your marriage "in fact" breaks down, when it is experienced as an unbearable emotional burden that frustrates your fulfilment in life" - in short, except when the prohibition to divorce would have regained its full meaning (since who would divorce if his or her marriage were still flourishing?)
- He then compares the Dalai Lama to the Pope, noting that the Dalai Lama is more appropriate to postmodern times because he offers "vague feel-good spiritualism without any specific obligations" while the Pope is an actual ethical leader because he stands for something someone might oppose.
Alas, the Wikipedia article on him has a number of big problems. Interested people should consider fixing it.