What does Slavoj Zizek mean by positive dogmatics? Does it matter in the Democratic Primaries?
March 15, 2008
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.