Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

55: Slavoj Žižek part V:
Formal Democracy and Its Discontents

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In his essay “Formal Democracy and Its Discontents,” Žižek tackles a whole host of issues: 1) an ethic of fantasy; 2) a critique of liberalism and duty; and finally 3) a critique of the nation and democracy.
         In the last few meetings we saw that fantasy is something we all engage in out of necessity for the sake of our psychological survival in an unpredictable, dangerous and hostile world. This tool of our psychological survival isolates us and prevents us from ever being truly close to or communicating fully with someone else. If this is true then how should we act; what is the proper set of ethical norms? Žižek notes that in practice to destroy someone's fantasy is a very traumatic thing to do to them because our fantasies are what mask the inconsistency in the symbolic order and what give meaning and coherence to our lives. Taking that away is the worst thing that can happen to us (Q1). So Žižek starts by proposing as an ethical norm: “...avoid as much as possible any violation of the fantasy space of the other, i.e., respect as much as possible the other's 'particular absolute,' the way he organizes his universe of meaning in a way particular to him.” (Q2)(Q3) This 'particular absolute' we all share is that we all have our own unique necessary fantasies.
         Implicit in Žižek's analysis is the modern failure of reason, god or some other transcendental foundation for freedom and human rights (Q4). Žižek refers to a world with the basic ethic of fantasy just outlined as the “liberal utopia” a world in which everyone has their rights and freedoms due to the fact that we all have a need for our own private fantasies. For Žižek this necessitates a strict separation of the private and the public: where in the private realm we can indulge in our fantasies free from external impositions and in the public realm we set up laws that provide the minimum interference necessary to respect other's freedom of self-creating fantasy (Q5). The problem as Žižek sees it that “...the very social law, as a kind of neutral set of rules, should limit our aesthetic self-creation and deprive us of a part of our enjoyment on behalf of solidarity, is always already penetrated by an obscene, 'pathological,' surplus enjoyment.” (Q6) Žižek goes on to say that all of society's institutions provide a pathological surplus enjoyment to the people in the them and often to the people they affect. In so far as these institutions have a duty to regulate us for the sake of solidarity they enjoy what they do. The duty must be an obsession otherwise the acts of the institution become capricious. When a duty is carried out obsessionally for its pleasure generating quality Žižek says that such a duty is not longer good rather it is evil: “The 'good' is only a way of maintaining a distance toward this evil Thing [duty], a distance that makes it bearable.”(Q7)
         Žižek and Lacan claim that ethnic strife and racism is a collective symptom, a reaction to the universalizing forces of capitalism. Nationalism (as well as denominationalism) is almost like a conditioned reflex trying to stop or at least make different or special the universalizing impulses of capitalism within an ethnic (or religious) group relative to non-members. As such all the evils of nationalism (and religion) as well as the good things are the collective fantasies of the people as they try to be special, as they try to be different from the rest (Q8).
         Consider who is the subject of democracy. Žižek claims that it is: “...not a human person, 'man' in all the richness of his needs, interests and beliefs....[it is] the Cartesian subject in all its abstraction, the empty punctuality we reach after subtracting all its particular abstraction of all positive features, a dissolution of all substantial, innate links.” This abstraction that is foisted on us is not something that we as living people (as subjects) can ever find psychologically satisfying so we seek identification in others ways (Q9).
         Democracy is therefore impossible (because we are not abstractions) and its impossibility (its abstract quality) is its only strength to continue (because we need a structure to base our particular fantasies on). In other words democracy can never exist in reality but it can exist in our fantasies (Q10).
         Žižek's suggestion for an ethic of fantasy and democracy is that we must: “...assume this constitutive paradox of democracy. We must assume a kind of 'active forgetfulness' by accepting the symbolic fiction even though we know that 'in reality, things are not like that.'” (Q11)
         Q1 Žižek claims that the shattering of one's fantasy (without the proper development of a replacement fantasy – which is the only way to change someones mind) is the most traumatic thing that can happen to us (even more traumatic than death – since people often would rather die than give up their fantasy). How does this notion strike you? Do you agree or disagree?
         Q2 Can you imagine a world in which people avoided 'violating the fantasy space of the other'? How would such a world look like?
         Q3 Žižek claims that there are two major advantages to this way of looking at ethics: 1) there is nothing particularly imaginary in the sense of the christian commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (which requires you to imagine your neighbor as yourself) nor 2) is there anything universally symbolic as in most theories that give dignity to people based on symbolic representations (such as divine grace, reason, law etc.) Do you see a problem with strictly particular or strictly universal foundations for ethics?
         Q4 Do you see any problem with the modern notions of freedom and rights?
         Q5 Žižek sees a major problem with the liberal utopia. What if anything do you see as a problem with the strict separation of the private and public spheres of life?
         Q6 Do you believe there can be a pathological pleasure in the act of prohibition? Freud claimed that the super-ego accumulates pleasure in the frustrating the Id. Have you ever experienced a perverse pleasure in denying someone something? Do you think police officers get a certain pleasure in giving tickets or beating protesters?
         Q7 What would you call someone who gains and seeks out the pleasure that comes from obsession with carrying out his/her duty? Can duty be taken too far? What is the likelihood of a duty that gives secret pleasure being taken too far? Would this be an evil duty or as Žižek calls it the “the most indecent of all obsessions”? Why does Žižek claim that this kind of duty is indecent?
         Q8 Some philosophers (Erik Fromm and Max Weber) believe that capitalism is the result of protestantism and the protestant reformation; however Lacan and Žižek believe that capitalism's start ended the middle ages and ushered in the Renaissance around the 13th century. Therefore capitalism already existed in a small way in 1521 (the year of Martin Luther's excommunication). Consider also that nationalism grew most rapidly during the age of empires (late 18th and early 20th centuries) or in other words when capitalism was in its most imperial stage. How does this idea of the causes of modern movements of religion and of nationalism strike you? Do you believe there is a cause and effect relation between capitalism and nationalism and denominationalism? If you do, which way does the arrow of causality go?
         Q9 Is democracy really dehumanizing? What do you think about the notion that democracy is a universalizing tool of capitalism? Some researchers (Amy Chua) have noticed that the rise of democracy has more often lead to ethnic conflict rather than ethnic peace. This seems to be a very big strike against democracy. Have your thoughts about democracy been challenged? If so how?
         Q10 Do you believe that we live in a democracy? Do you believe that democracy is possible? What do you think of Žižek's claim?
         Q11 This Kantian, “we should act as if” sounds unsatisfying to me. How do you feel about acting and living in a fantasy world? Žižek seems to suggest that you actively accept this and learn to deal with it. How does this strike you?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren