The author Slavoj Žižek criticizes the so called non ideological «postmodern» capitalism as very ideological. This ideology operates with «Biopolitics», that are politics of fear – fear of immigrants, of crime, of an excessive state, of climate change, and of the neighbor. But this other is only tolerated, when he doesn’t harass, or: when he is the same not really an other.
Keywords: Biopolitics, Capitalism, Ethics, Intolerance, Stranger, Torture, Truth Pill
We are witnessing today a global transformation of the hegemonic mode of ideological interpellation. If, in the Middle Ages, the key ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) was Church (religion as institution), the capitalist modernity imposed the twin hegemony of legal ideology and education (state school system): subjects were interpellated as patriotic free citizens, subjects of the legal order, while individuals were formed into legal subjects through the compulsory universal education. The gap was thus maintained between bourgeois and citizen, between the egotist-utilitarian individual concerned with his private interests and the citoyen dedicated to the universal domain of the state – and, insofar as, in the spontaneous ideological perception, ideology is limited to the universal sphere of citizenship, while the private sphere of egotist interests is considered «pre-ideological», the very gap between ideology and non-ideology is thus transposed into ideology. What happens in the latest stage of the post-68 «postmodern» capitalism is that economy itself (the logic of market and competition) is progressively imposing itself as the hegemonic ideology:
In education, we are witnessing the gradual dismantling of the classical bourgeois school ISA: the school system is less and less the compulsory network elevated above market and organized directly by state, bearer of enlightened values (libérté, égalité, fratérnité); on behalf of the sacred formula of «lower costs, higher efficiency», it is progressively penetrated by different forms of PPP (public-private partnership).
In the organization and legitimization of power, the electoral system is more and more conceived on the model of the market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange where the voters «buy» the option which offers to do in the most efficient way the job of maintaining social order, prosecuting crime, etc. etc. On behalf of the same formula of «lower costs, higher efficiency», even some functions which should be the exclusive domain of the state power (like running prisons) can be privatized; the army is no longer based on universal conscription, but composed of hired mercenaries, etc. Even the state bureaucracy is no longer perceived as the Hegelian universal class, as is becoming evident in the case of Berlusconi. What makes Berlusconi as a political phenomenon so interesting is the fact that he, the most powerful politician in his country, acts more and more shamelessly: he not only ignores or politically neutralizes legal investigations into his criminal activity to boost his private business interests, he is also systematically undermining the basic dignity of the head of a state. The dignity of classical politics is grounded in its elevation above the play of particular interests in the civil society: politics is «alienated» from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of egotist interests that characterize the bourgeois. Berlusconi effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits state power as the means for the protection of his economic interests.
Even the process of engaging in emotional relations is more and more organized along the lines of a market-relationship. Alain Badiou (2009: 15) deployed the parallel between today’s search for a sexual (or marital) partner through appropriate dating agencies and the ancient procedure of marriages prearranged by parents: in both cases, the proper risk of «falling in love» is suspended, there is no contingent «fall» proper, the risk of the real called «love encounter» is minimized by preceding arrangements which take into account all material and psychological interests of the concerned parties. Robert Epstein (2010: 11) brought this idea to its logical conclusion, providing its missing counterpart: once you choose your appropriate partner, how to arrange that you will both effectively love each other? Based on the study of arranged marriages, Epstein developed «procedures of affection-building» - one can «build love deliberately and choose whom to do it with»… Such a procedure relies on self-commodification: on internet dating or in marriage agencies, each prospective partner presents itself as a commodity, listing his qualities and photos. Eva Illouz (2007) perspicuously explains the usual disappointment when the internet partners decide to meat in reality: the reason is not that we idealize ourselves in the self-presentation, but that this self-representation is necessarily limited the enumeration of abstract features (age, hobbies, etc.) – what is missing here is what Freud called der einzige Zug, the «unary feature», that je ne sais quoi which instantly makes me like or dislike the other. Love is a choice which is by definition experienced as necessity: falling in love should be free, one cannot be ordered to fall in love; however, we are never in a position to make this free choice – if one decides with whom to fall in love, comparing the qualities of the respective candidates, this is by definition not love. It is just that, at a certain point in time, one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one already IS in love, and that one cannot do otherwise – it is as if from all eternity destiny was preparing me for this encounter. This is the reason why marital agencies are an anti-love device par excellence: their wager is that they will organize love as an actual free choice – upon reviewing the list of selected candidates, I choose the most appropriate one.
From individuals to subjects
And, quite logically, insofar as economy is considered the sphere of non-ideology, this brave new world of global commodification considers itself post-ideological. The ISA are, of course, still here, more than ever; however, as we have already seen, insofar as, in its self-perception, ideology is located into subjects in contrast to pre-ideological individuals, this hegemony of the economic sphere cannot but appear as the absence of ideology. What this means is not that ideology simply directly reflects economy as its actual base: we fully remain within the sphere of ISA, economy functions here as an ideological model, so that we are fully justified to say that economy is here operative as an ISA – in contrast to the «real» economic life which definitely does not follow the idealized liberal market model.
What kind of shift in the functioning of ideology does this self-erasure of ideology imply? Let us take as our starting point the Althusserian notion of Ideological State Apparatuses. When Althusser claims that ideology interpellates individuals into subjects, «individuals» stand here for living beings on which a dispositif of ISAs works, imposing on them the network of micro-practices, while «subject» is NOT a category of living being, of substance, but the result of these living beings being caught into an ISA dispositif (or into a symbolic order). Today, however, we are witnessing a radical change in the working of this mechanism – Agamben defines our contemporary postpolitical/biopolitical as a society in which the multiple dispositifs desubjectivize individuals without producing a new subjectivity, without subjectivizing them:
«Herefrom the eclipse of politics which supposed real subjects or identities (workers’ movement, bourgeoisie, etc.) and the triumph of economy, that is to say, of the pure activity of governing which pursues only its own reproduction. The Right and the Left which today follow each other in managing power have thus very little to do with the political context from which the terms which designate them originate. Today these terms simply name the two poles (the one which target without any scruples the desubjectivation and the one which wants to cover it up with the hypocritical mask of the good citizen of democracy) of the same machine of government» (Agamben 2007: 46f.).
«Biopolitics» designates this constellation in which dispositifs no longer generate subjects (‹interpellate individuals into subjects›), but merely administer and regulate individuals’ bare life – in bio-politics, we are all potentially homo sacer. More specifically, today’s predominant mode of politics is a post-political biopolitics. There is a tautology here: post-politics designates the reduction of politics to the expert administration of social life. Such a politics is ultimately a politics of fear and focused on defense from potential victimization or harassment. This is what separates a radical emancipatory politics from our political _status quo. _ We’re not talking here about the difference between two visions, or sets of axioms, but, rather, the difference between politics based on a set of universal axioms and a politics which renounces the very constitutive dimension of the political, since it resorts to fear as its ultimate mobilizing principle: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself, with its burden of high taxation), fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Such a (post)politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid _ochlos _– the frightening rallying of frightened men and women.
The zero-level of politics today is a depoliticized, socially objective, expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilize people, is through fear, a basic constituent of today’s subjectivity. This is why the big event of 2006 was that anti-immigration politics went mainstream and finally cut the umbilical cord that had connected them to far Right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride at one’s cultural and historical identity, the main parties now found it acceptable to stress that immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – ‹it is our country, love it or leave it.›
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really Other… In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of chocolate laxative, tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to be kept at a safe distance from others.
The post-political biopolitics also has two aspects which cannot but appear as belonging to two opposite ideological spaces: that of the reduction of humans to bare life, to homo sacer as the object of the expert caretaking knowledge (see Agamben 2007); and that of the respect for the vulnerable Other brought to extreme, of the attitude of narcissistic subjectivity which experiences itself as vulnerable, constantly exposed to a multitude of potential «harassments». Is there a stronger contrast than the one between the respect for the Other’s vulnerability and the reduction of the Other to «mere life» regulated by the administrative knowledge? But what if these two stances nonetheless rely on the same root, what if they are the two aspects of one and the same underlying attitude, what if they coincide in what one is tempted to designate as the contemporary case of the Hegelian «infinite judgment» which asserts the identity of opposites? What the two poles share is precisely the underlying refusal of any higher Causes, the notion that the ultimate goal of our lives is life itself. This is why there is no contradiction between the respect for the vulnerable Other and the readiness to justify torture, the extreme expression of treating individuals as homini sacer.
«Truth pill» – a torture equivalent to decaf coffee or diet coke
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris defense of torture is based on the distinction between our immediate being-impressed by the suffering of others and our abstract notion of others’ suffering: it is much more difficult for us to torture a singular person than to drop a bomb from a far distance that would cause the even more painful death of thousands. We are thus all caught in a kind of ethical illusion, parallel to perceptual illusions; the ultimate cause of these illusions is that, although our power of abstract reasoning has developed immensely, our emotional-ethical responses remain conditioned by hundreds of thousands years old instinctual reactions of sympathy to suffering and pain that is directly witnessed. This is why shooting someone point-blank is for most of us much more repulsive than pressing a button that will kill thousand absent persons:
«Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary. Still, it does not seem any more acceptable, in ethical terms, than it did before. The reasons for this are, I trust, every bit as neurological as those that give rise to the moon illusion. /…/ It may be time to take out our rulers and hold them up to the sky» (Harris 2005: 199).
No wonder that Harris refers to Alan Derschowitz and his legitimization of torture (Harris 2005: 199). In order to suspend this evolutionary conditioned vulnerability to the physical display of other’s suffering, Harris imagines an ideal «truth pill», an effective torture equivalent to decaf coffee or diet coke:
«a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour’s nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organization. Might we not be tempted to call it a ‘truth pill’ in the end?» (Harris 2005: 197).
The very first lines – «a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment» – introduce the typically postmodern logic of chocolate laxative: the torture imagined here is like a decaf coffee – we get the result without having to suffer unpleasant side-effects. The first reaction: at the notorious Serbsky Institute in Moscow (the psychiatric outlet of the KGB), they already invented a similar drug to torture dissidents, an injection into the prisoner’s heart zone which slowed down his heart beating and caused terrifying anxiety – viewed from outside, the prisoner seemed just dozing, while he was going through a nightmare… The further problem is that Harris violates here his own rule when he focuses on September 11, and in his critique of Chomsky: the point of Chomsky is precisely the hypocrisy of tolerating the abstract-anonymous killing of thousands while condemning individual cases of the violation of human rights – why is Kissinger, when he ordered the carpet bombing of Cambodia that led to the death of tens of thousands, less a criminal than those responsible for the Twin Towers collapse? Is it not that because we are precisely victims of the «ethical illusion»: the horror of September 11 was presented in detail in the media, while – to take another case – when the al-Jazeera TV shows shots of the results of the US bombing of Faludja is condemned for its complicity with the terrorists…
There is, however, a much more disquieting prospect at work here: the proximity (of the tortured subject) which causes sympathy and makes torture unacceptable is not a mere physical proximity, but, at its most fundamental, the proximity of the Neighbor (with all the Judeo-Christian-Freudian weight on this term), of the Thing which, no matter how far away it is physically, is always by definition «too close». Consequently, what Harris aims at with his imagined «truth pill» is nothing less than the abolition of the dimension of the Neighbor: the tortured subject is no longer a Neighbor, but an object whose pain is neutralized, reduced to a property that has to be dealt with in a rational utilitarian calculus (so much pain is tolerable if it prevents a much greater amount of pain) – what disappears here is the abyss of the infinity that pertains to a subject. It is thus significant that the book which argues for torture is also the book entitled The End of Faith – not, however, in the obvious sense of «You see, it is only our belief in God, the divine in junction to love your neighbor, that ultimately prevents us from torturing people!», but in a much more radical sense. Another subject (and, ultimately, subject as such) is for Lacan not something directly given, but a «presupposition», something presumed, an object of belief – how can I ever be sure that what I see in front of me is another subject, not a depthless flat biological machine?
The Neighbor Thing
This presupposed subject is not another person with a rich inner life, filled with stories she is telling herself about herself in order to acquire a meaningful experience of her existence, since such a person cannot ultimately be an enemy. «An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard» (quoted from Brown 2006). What better literary example of this thesis than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley does something that a conservative would never have done. In the central part of her book, she allows the monster to speak for himself, to tell the story from his own perspective. Her choice expresses the liberal attitude to freedom of speech at its most radical: everyone’s point of view should be heard. In Frankenstein, the monster is not a Thing, a horrible object no one dares to confront; he is fully subjectivized. Mary Shelley moves inside his mind and asks what it is like to be labelled, defined, oppressed, ex-communicated, even physically distorted by society. The ultimate criminal is thus allowed to present himself as the ultimate victim. The monstrous murderer reveals himself to be a deeply hurt and desperate individual, yearning for company and love.
There is, however, a clear limit to this procedure: is one also ready to affirm that Hitler was an enemy because his story was not heard? In his Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick reports his attempts, during his visit to Moscow in 1988, to meet Lazar Kaganovich, the last surviving member of Stalin’s inner circle, who directed the collectivization program of 1929-1933 and was responsible for untold destruction and suffering. Now, at the age of ninety-plus, he lived a secluded life in a lonely apartment. What fascinated Remnick was the prospect of seeing a truly evil person:
«Did Kaganovich still believe? I wanted to know. Did he feel any guilt, any shame? And what did he think of Gorbachev, the current general secretary? But that wasn’t it, really. Mostly I wanted just to sit in the same room with Kaganovich, to see what an evil man looked like, to know what he did, what books he kept around» (Remnick 1993: 11).
What, in all probability, Remnick would have encountered had he succeeded, would have been a frail, benevolent, old man stuck in his dreams. When, in the 1960s, Svetlana Stalina emigrated to the US through India and wrote her memoirs, she presented Stalin ‹from inside› as a warm father and caring leader, with most of the mass murders imposed on him by his evil collaborators, mainly Beria. Later, Beria’s son wrote a memoir presenting his father as a warm family man who simply followed Stalin’s orders and secretly tried to limit the damage. Malenkov’s son also told his story, describing his father as an honest hard-worker, always afraid for his life. Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime-Byronesque, demonic Evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie – the truth lies outside, in what we do.
One of the facts that never cease to surprise the naïve ethical consciousness is how the very same people who commit terrible violent acts towards their enemies can display warm humanity and gentle care for the members of their own group. Isn’t it strange that the same German soldier who slaughtered innocent civilians was ready to sacrifice his life for his fellow soldiers? That the commander who ordered the shooting of hostages can that same evening write a letter to his family full of sincere love? This limitation of our ethical concern to a narrow circle seems to run counter to our spontaneous insight that we are all humans, with the same basic hopes, fears and pains, and therefore the same justified claim to respect and dignity. Consequently, those who constrain the scope of their ethical concern are in a profound sense inconsistent, ‹hypocritical› even. To put it in Habermasian terms, they are involved in a pragmatic contradiction, since they violate the ethical norms which sustain their own speech community. Refusing the same basic ethical rights to those outside our community as to the insiders is something that does not come naturally to a human being. It is a violation of our spontaneous ethical proclivity. it involves brutal repression, and self-denial.
When, after the fall of Communism, the East German soft-dissident writer Stephan Hermlin was reproached for writing texts and poems back in the 1950s that celebrated Stalin, he replied with furious indignity that, in those years in Europe, the name «Stalin» simply stood for the inspiration to freedom and justice, and had nothing to do with the horrible things which were ‹secretly› taking place in the Soviet Union. This excuse, of course, is all too slick and easy: one need not know the truth about the Stalinist terror in order to suspect that something was hideously wrong in Stalinism. Reading public texts – the official reports from the show trials, the attacks on enemies, the official panegyrics to Stalin and other leaders – should have been more than enough. In a way, everything one needs to know was already clear from these. This is why the truly surprising hypocrisy is the readiness of the Western Communist observers to perceive the Stalinist accusations as a true psychological fact about the accused. In a letter to Benjamin from 1938, Adorno reports about a conversation he had with Hans Eisler in New York:
«I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defense of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of Bukharin. He claims to have known the latter in Moscow, telling me that Bukharin’s conscience was already so bad that he could not even look him, Eisler, honestly in the eyes» (Adorno/Benjamin 1999: 252).
Eisler’s psychological blindness is staggering here: he misreads Bucharin’s terror - his fear of contact with foreigners when he knows that he is under observation and close to arrest – as an inner guilt feeling for Stalinism’s crimes. How are we to understand this alongside the fact that the cultural products of high Stalinism were perceived by many in the West as the most authentic expression of authentic morality, one exuding a warm humanism and a faith in man (recall the reception in the West of Mark Donskoi’s Gorky-trilogy)? Perhaps, one should move from reproaching the naivety of Western fellow-travelers about the horrors of the Stalinist Soviet Union to a more Deleuzian notion of a contingent series intersecting and generating totally disparate meanings, like a science fiction story in which scientists discover that the explosion which, in the Bible, signals the divine message, was effectively the visual trace of a terrible catastrophe that destroyed a flourishing alien civilization. That is to say, the difficult thing to accept is that the horrors out of which the Gorky-trilogy grew in no way undermine the authenticity of its effect on the Western or even Russian viewers.
When the United 93 plane flight and the other three planes were kidnapped on 9/11, it is significant that the gist of the phone calls to their closest relatives from the passengers who knew they were about to die was, ‹I love you›. Martin Amis emphasized the Paulinian point that all that ultimately matters is love: ‹Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black› (Amis 2006: 4f.). However, a suspicion remains here: is this desperate confession of love also not something of a sham, the same kind of fakery as the sudden turn to God and prayer of someone who suddenly faces the danger or proximity of death - a hypocritical opportunistic move born of fear, not of true conviction? Why should there be more truth in what we do in such desperate moments? Is it not rather that, in such moments, the survival-instinct makes us betraying__ our desire? In this sense, death-bed conversions or confessions of love are sacrifices of desire. According to numerous memoirs, many of the condemned at Stalinist show trials faced the firing squad professing their innocence and their love for Stalin, a pathetic gesture aimed at redeeming their image in the eyes of the big Other. In this same vein, one cannot but be stricken by how, in their intimate correspondence, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg denied they were Soviet spies, playing innocent victims of an FBI plot, although, to the embarrassment of their defenders, recent documents prove that Julius at least was a spy (true, a more low-level one than the prosecution claimed). The weird thing is that, when one reads their intimate documents now, after learning that he was a spy, one still cannot avoid the impression of utter sincerity, as if he convinced himself of his innocence – a fact all the more strange if one bears in mind that, if he really believed in the Soviet Union, why, then, shouldn’t he be spying for it, and be proud of it? (This, incidentally, brings us to what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life, telling him: ‹Just to let you know that our marriage was a fake, that I cannot stand the sight of you…›)
Recall another tragic figure from the Cold War era: those Western Leftists who heroically defied anti-Communist hysteria in their own countries with the utmost sincerity. They were ready even to go to prison for their Communist conviction and defense of Soviet Union. Isn’t it the very illusory nature of their belief that makes their subjective stance so tragically-sublime? The miserable reality of the Stalinist Soviet Union makes the inner fragile beauty of their conviction all the more sublime. This leads us to a radical and unexpected conclusion: it is not enough to say that we are dealing here with a tragically misplaced ethical conviction, with a blind trust that avoids confronting the miserable, terrifying reality of its ethical point of reference. What if, on the contrary, such blindness, such a violent exclusory gesture of refusing-to-see, such a disavowal-of-reality, such a fetishist attitude of ‹I know very well that things are horrible in the Soviet Union, but I nonetheless believe in Soviet socialism›, is the innermost constituent of every ethical stance? Kant was already well aware of this paradox when he deployed his notion of enthusiasm for the French revolution in his Conflict of Faculties (1795). The Revolution’s true significance does not reside in what actually went on in Paris – much of which was terrifying and included outbursts of murderous passion - but in the enthusiastic response that the events in Paris generated in the eyes of sympathetic observers all around Europe:
«The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires [ eine Teilnehmung dem Wunsche nach] which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race» (Kant 1991: 182).
To translate this into Lacanian language, the real Event, the very dimension of the Real, was not in the immediate reality of the violent events in Paris, but in how this reality appeared to observers and in the hopes thus awakened in them. The reality of what went on in Paris belongs to the temporal dimension of empirical history; the sublime image that generated enthusiasm belongs to Eternity… And, mutatis mutandis, the same applies for the Western admirers of the Soviet Union. The Soviet experience of ‹building socialism in one country› certainly did ‹accumulate misery and atrocity›, but it nevertheless aroused enthusiasm in the heart of the spectators (who were not themselves caught up in it)… The question here is: does every ethics have to rely on such a gesture of fetishist disavowal? Our wager is: every ethics - with the exception of the ethics of psychoanalysis (which is a kind of anti-ethics: it focuses precisely on what the standard ethical enthusiasm excludes, on the misery that is the obverse of our enthusiasm).
All men are brothers – and the others are not men
To wonder at this fact is not a proper philosophical attitude. That is to say, what if that which appears as an inconsistency, as the failure to draw all the consequences from one’s ethical attitude, is, on the contrary, its positive condition of possibility? What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is co-substantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St Paul’s famous «There are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks») involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other ‘particularistic’ religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto, ‹All men are brothers›, however, also means that those who do not accept to be our brothers are not men. In the early years of the Iranian revolution, Khomeini played on the same paradox when he claimed, in an interview for the Western press, that the Iranian revolution is the most human in the entire history: not one person was killed by the revolutionaries. When the surprised journalist asked about the death penalties publicized in the media, Khomeini calmly replied: ‹Those that we killed were not men, but criminal dogs!› Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing the entirety of humanity. The catch is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with a privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while Christian universalism tendentially excludes non-believers from the very universality of humankind.
So what about the opposite gesture – such as that made by Emmanuel Levinas - of abandoning the claim to Sameness that underlies universality, and replacing it by a respect for Otherness? There is, as Peter Sloterdijk has pointed out another obverse and much more unsettling dimension to the Levinasian figure of the Neighbour as the imponderable Other who deserves our unconditional respect. That is, the imponderable Other as Enemy, the Enemy who is the absolute Other and no longer the ‘honourable enemy’, but someone whose very reasoning is foreign to us, so that no authentic encounter with him in battle is possible. Although Levinas did not have this dimension in mind, the radical ambiguity, the traumatic character of the Neighbour makes it easy to understand how Levinas’s notion of the Other prepared the ground (opened up the space) for it in a way strictly homologous to the way that Kantian ethics prepared the ground for the notion of diabolical Evil. Horrible as it may sound, the Levinasian Other as the abyss of Otherness from which the ethical injunction emanates and the Nazi figure of the Jew as the less-than-human Other-Enemy originate from the same source.
When Freud and Lacan insist on the problematic nature of the basic Judeo-Christian injunction to ‹love thy neighbor›, they are thus not just making the standard critico-ideological point about how every notion of universality is coloured by our particular values and thus implying secret exclusions. They are making a much stronger point on the incompatibility of the Neighbour with the very dimension of universality. What resists universality is the properly inhuman dimension of the Neighbour. It is for this reason that finding oneself in the position of the beloved is so violent, traumatic even: being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which causes love. Lacan’s definition of love (‹Love is giving something one doesn’t have…›) has to be supplemented with: ‹…to someone who doesn’t want it.› Indeed, are we aware that Yeats’ well-known lines describe one of the most claustrophobic constellations that one can imagine?
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
In short, as Deleuze put it, si vous etes pris dans le reve de l’autre, vous etez foutu _- or, as Neil Gaiman, the inventor of the graphic novel _The Sandman, put it in a memorable passage:
« Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love».
In the last years of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky lived in Stockholm, working on Sacrifice. He was given an office in the same building in which Ingmar Bergman, who at that time still lived in Stockholm, had his. Although the two directors had deep respect and supreme admiration for each other, they never met, but carefully avoided each other, as if their direct encounter would have been too painful and doomed to fail on account of the very proximity of their universes. They invented and respected their own code of discretion.