Culture » February 27, 2004
Passion: Regular or Decaf?
Those who virulently criticized Mel Gibson’s The Passion even before its release seem unassailable: Are they not justified to worry that the film, made by a fanatic Catholic known for occasional anti-Semitic outbursts, may ignite anti-Semitic sentiments?
More generally, is The Passion not a manifesto of our own (Western, Christian) fundamentalists? Is it then not the duty of every Western secularist to reject it, 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reaction to the film is well known: Upon seeing it, deeply moved, he muttered “It is as it was”—a statement quickly withdrawn by the official Vatican speakers. The Pope’s spontaneous reaction was thus replaced by an “official” neutrality, corrected so as not to hurt anyone. This shift, with its politically correct fear that anyone’s specific religious sensibility may be hurt, exemplifies what is wrong with liberal tolerance: Even if the Bible says 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 it merely represses aggressive religious passion, which remains smoldering beneath the surface and, finding no release, gets stronger and stronger.
This prohibition against embracing a belief with full passion may explain why, today, religion is only permitted as a particular “culture,” or lifestyle phenomenon, not as a substantial way of life. We no longer “really believe,” we just follow (some of) the religious rituals and mores out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong. Indeed, what is a “cultural lifestyle” if not that every December in every house there is a Christmas tree—although none of us believes in Santa Claus? Perhaps, then, “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.” Isn’t this why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians,” as a threat to culture—they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, ultimately, we perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance toward it.
Jacques Lacan’s definition of love is “giving something one doesn’t have.” What one often forgets is to add the other half: “… to someone who doesn’t want it.” This is confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declares passionate love to us: Isn’t the reaction, preceding the possible affirmative reply, that something obscene and intrusive is being forced upon us? This is why, ultimately, passion is politically incorrect; although everything seems permitted in our culture, one kind of prohibition is merely displaced by another.
Consider the deadlock that is sexuality or art today. Is there anything more dull and sterile than the incessant invention of new artistic transgressions—the performance artist masturbating on stage, the sculptor displaying human excrement? Some radical circles in the United States recently proposed that we rethink the rights of necrophiliacs. In the same way that people sign permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes, shouldn’t they also be allowed to permit their bodies to be enjoyed by necrophiliacs? This proposal is the perfect example of how the PC stance realizes Kierkegaard’s insight that the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor. A corpse is the ideal sexual partner of a tolerant subject trying to avoid any passionate interaction.
On today’s market, we find a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. The list goes on: virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of war with no casualties (on our side, of course) as war without war, the redefinition of politics as expert administration as politics without politics. Today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism wishes to experience the Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight). Along the same lines, what this tolerance gives us is a decaffeinated belief, a belief that does not hurt anyone and never requires us to commit ourselves.
Today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint. It is no longer “Drink coffee, but in moderation!” but rather “Drink all the coffee you want because it is already decaffeinated.” The ultimate example is chocolate laxative, with its paradoxical injunction “Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!”—the very thing that causes constipation.
The structure of the “chocolate laxative,” of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape. Consider how we relate to capitalist profiteering: It is fine IF it is counteracted with charitable activities—first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy. The same goes for war, for the emerging logic of humanitarian militarism: War is OK insofar as it brings about peace and democracy, or creates the conditions to distribute humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold true for democracy and human rights? It is OK to “rethink” human rights to include torture and a permanent emergency state, if democracy is cleansed of its populist “excesses.”
Does this mean that, against the false tolerance of liberal multiculturalism, we should return to religious fundamentalism? The very absurdity of Gibson’s vision makes clear the impossibility of such a solution. Gibson first wanted to shoot the film in Latin and Aramaic and show it without subtitles. Under pressure, he allowed subtitles, but this compromise was not just a concession to commercial demands. Sticking to the original plan would have displayed the self-refuting nature of Gibson’s project: That is to say, the film without subtitles shown in large suburban malls would turn its intended fidelity into the opposite, an incomprehensible exotic spectacle.
But there is a third position, beyond religious fundamentalism and liberal tolerance. One should not put forth the distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam, a la Bush and Blair, who never forget to praise Islam as a great religion of love and tolerance that has nothing to do with disgusting terrorist acts. Instead, one should gather the courage to recognize the obvious fact that there is a deep strain of violence and intolerance in Islam—that, to put it bluntly, something in Islam resists the liberal-capitalist world order. By transposing this tension into the core of Islam, one can conceive such resistance as an opportunity: It need not necessarily lead to “Islamo-Fascism,” but rather could be articulated into a Socialist project. The traditional European Fascism was a misdirected act of resistance against the deadlocks of capitalist modernization. What was wrong with Fascism was NOT (as liberals keep telling us) its dream of a people’s community that overcomes capitalist competition through a spirit of collective discipline and sacrifice, but how these motives were deformed by a specific political twist. Fascism, in a way, took the best and turned it into the worst.
Instead of trying to extract the pure ethical core of a religion from its political manipulations, one should ruthlessly criticize that very core—in ALL religions. Today, when religions themselves (from New Age spirituality to the cheap spiritualist hedonism of the Dalai Lama) are more than ready to serve postmodern pleasure-seeking, it is consequently, and paradoxically, only a thorough materialism that is able to sustain a truly ascetic, militant and ethical stance.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.