What does Slavoj Zizek mean by positive dogmatics? Does it matter in the Democratic Primaries?

March 15, 2008

I just saw Slavoj Zizek give a talk at a Legal Left event at the Harvard Law School. Happily, he turned out to be just as entertaining, obscene, and iconoclastic in person as he is on screen.

Zizek talks like he writes. Somehow his ideas emerge from amidst his frenetic gestures, thickly accented english, dirty jokes, maxist psychoanalytic jargon, and references to pop culture. A few years ago I read his book, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle and came away with a distinct feeling of confused enjoyment. This evening was similar in that regard…

One of the most thought provoking claims Zizek made (or at least one of the last things he said – so it stuck in my mind) had to do with what he called “positive dogmatics.” What does he mean by that phrase? I’m not sure, but the example he used had to do with the American public discourse on torture.

In the face of the persistent post-9/11 arguments in favor of legalizing torture that have circulated among American intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz, the Zizek argues that the best strategy for the left is to insist that there can be no debate on the issue. He contrasts this with the typical, politically-correct, liberal response, which is to engage in a reasoned debate on the issue.

The problem with polite and reasoned debate, in this case, is that it signifies partial acceptance that the moral and juridical boundary against torture is subject to contestation. Once you open the debate, you invite open transgression. People may continue to believe that torture is not good, but they will consider it a matter of legal and personal opinion – which in American society means that it is pretty much okay.

From a political standpoint, Zizek claims that it is better to publicly refuse the debate in the first place – thereby foreclosing the issue – while privately recognizing that torture still might happen sometimes. This sounds a little ridiculous at first, but then why do I think he’s right?

Zizek’s argument hinges on an underlying claim about the political utility of a customs. Customs – in the sense that they represents a code of polite fictions known to everyone in any given community – grease the wheels of society. While not “true” in a larger metaphysical sense, customs make it possible for us to coexist. Every day, we apologize without meaning it, hold doors for people we don’t care about, and smile to strangers whose views about the world we would find abhorrent (if only we knew them!). To be smart political subjects, we must learn to use these codes effectively; learn when it is better to smile and nod versus when it is better to give someone the finger. We must also learn when a stance of principled refusal – while dishonest in a sense – can serve a socially progressive purpose.

This is what I think Zizek has in mind when he argues that the left should claim the moral high ground in the torture debate by arguing that debate itself is not an option. This is not equivalent with not participating in the argument at all. Rather, it is vociferous denunciation of the legitimacy of the debate – which is a very powerful form of participation.

Such an inflexible moral stance is exactly the kind of position the American “left” never takes. Enamored of their ability to reason their way through an argument and out-analyze their opponents, Democratic politicians continually find themselves out-maneuvered rhetorically. John Kerry and Al Gore elevated this foible into an art form during their respective campaigns against our putative president.

Would this strategy help the democrats look less wishy-washy in the debates about torture? What about the debates over domestic wire-tapping? It’s difficult to say for sure. What’s certain is that a similar tactic has helped the Obama campaign reap dividends in open primaries and swing states. Apparently drawn by Obama’s personal charisma and his ability to speak in terms of values and morals, centrist independents have boosted his numbers and helped him fend off Hillary’s attacks. Time and again, she has come off looking petty and scheming despite the legitimacy of some of her claims. Elections are not about truth or reason, so much as they are about striking the right tone with the electorate and building a ground-campaign that can reach out to undecided voters. Thus far, Obama has defeated Hillary on both fronts.

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2 Responses to “What does Slavoj Zizek mean by positive dogmatics? Does it matter in the Democratic Primaries?”

  1. dwendt Says:

    It seems like your talking about the manipulation of social customs rather than the function of them. Have you considered the differences between a small town and a city? Seems to me like you’re from a small town, where social customs are political. But in a city, when practiced, there are no politics involved.

    you seem a little obsessed with self interest. I guess that makes you a good american, but provides a rather unfortunate lens for discussing progressive politics and social theory. If only human relations were as simple as social capital and games theories would have us believe… funny how these theories haven’t had more of an influence on psychology. You’d think theories with so much predictive power would; and other hog-wash theories like social coping would be left out of science.

    I wonder how you measure if someone is “wishy-washy”? Is it the number or times they’re called it on the TV news?

    I don’t see how a position based on data and analysis is less an inflexible moral stance than one based on a whim? Both change when they become unpopular positions, but I guess the heavily argued one is harder to change quickly, and the one based on a whim can be changed with less trouble. Is that what you mean by wishy-washy? That when popular opinion changes democrats have to present a reasoned arguement for why their opinion changed, while republicans just have to say so?

  2. aaron Says:

    Thanks for the comment, dwendt. Let’s see if I can reply to a few pieces of it:

    1. I would argue that customs and norms are always subject to political contestation whether you live in a city or not. The relative anonymity of daily urban life does not make our behavior immune to the collective judgements and expectations of others. This seems especially when we’re talking about politicians, who may live in cities, but must also deal with a much higher level of personal scrutiny than the average urban dweller.

    2. Funny that you read self-interest so deeply into my post – I hadn’t been thinking that way and find most game theoretic models of behavior woefully inadequate. That said, I’ve been doing some reading on behavioral theories of cooperation lately and it wouldn’t surprise me if those perspectives have infiltrated my thinking in subtle ways. When I wrote this, I had been thinking more about the strategic political interests of Americans on the left. To the extent that I count myself in that group, I suppose it is self-interested.

    As for social coping, I’m not so familiar with psychology so I’d need to go read more before I reply substantively to that idea.

    3. By wishy washy, I suppose I meant that there seems to be a widespread perception (in part perpetrated by the American news-media), that American Democratic politicians lack morals. This has spelled disaster for Democratic candidates in the eyes of much of the American electorate.

    While I think that policy decisions and strategies should be based on the analysis of evidence and not the product of “a hunch,” it often behooves American politicians to obscure their analytical process for fear that they might appear overly intellectual. To that extent, I think I am arguing that Democrats might do well to alter the tone of their explanations for policy decisions. A good example of what this might look like came up during the 2005 congressional campaign of Paul Hackett, a Democrat from Ohio in a very conservative district. When asked about the issue of gay marriage (a divisive issue for conservative Americans), he reportedly replied:

    “Gay marriage – who the hell cares? If you’re gay you’re gay – more power to you. What you want is to be treated fairly by the law and any American who doesn’t think that should be the case is, frankly, un-American.”

    While such a statement may seem like crass populism, it represents a brilliant rhetorical maneuver. Hackett turns the language of Republican hate-mongering on its head by making his support for legal equality a measure of his patriotism. The Republican opposition to gay marriage is not based on a whim, but on careful polling of religious conservatives. Instead of trying to reason those conservatives out of their views (thereby ignoring the challenge to his values and appearing “wishy washy” in my highly scientific terms), Hackett opted to up the ante and connect the issue to notions of equality and freedom – both of which inspire strong responses in American voters. Hackett eventually lost the contest by just over 3%. But when you realize that over 60% of the same district voted for George Bush in 2004, that margin looks pretty remarkable.


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