Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not Violent Enough

Zizek takes an entire chapter in In Defense of Lost Causes offering commentary on how we might understand Martin Heidegger's connection to Nazism. Zizek dismisses the characteristic justifications for this. 1) Heidegger was never really a Nazi, he just made superficial compromises in order to save what he could of the autonomy of the university. 2) Heidegger was, for a limited period, a sincerely committed Nazi; however, not only did he withdraw once he became aware of his blunder, but the acquaintance with Nazi power precisely enabled him to gain an insight into the nihilism of modern technology as the deployment of the unconditional will-to-power. 3) Heidegger was a Nazi, and there is nothing to reproach him with for this choice: in the early 1930s, it was a perfectly legitimate and understandable choice.
Zizek subtitles this chapter "Why Heidegger took the right step (albeit in the wrong direction) in 1933. He is interested in showing that Heidegger's association rather than being an anomaly or mistake was actually somehow deeply embedded in his overall thinking.

The association of course is not with the extermination of the Jews but with the possibility of revolution. What is sought through revolution is the creation of space, the suspension of temporality, and the emergence of something new. What becomes the criticism of the Nazism exertion of total power was not that it went too far but that it did not go far enough. What Heidegger hoped to address was the primal conflict in being that sustains the social order. This opens the way for Heidegger's discussion on violence. Zizek offers an extended quote,

Violence is usually seen in terms of the domain in which concurring compromise and mutual assistance set the standard for Dasein, and accordingly all violence is necessarily deemed only a disturbance and an offense. . . . The violent one, the creative on who sets forth into the unsaid, who breaks into the unthought, who compels what has never happened and makes appear what is unseen - this violent one stands at all times in daring. . . . Therefore the violence-doer knows no kindness and conciliation (in the ordinary sense), no appeasement and mollification by success or prestige and by their confirmation. . . . For such a one, disaster is the deepest and broadest Yes to the Overwhelming. . . . Essential de-cision, when it is carried out and when it resists the constantly pressing ensnarement in the everyday and customary, has to use violence. This act of violence, this decided setting out upon the way to the Being of beings, moves humanity out of the hominess of what is most directly nearby and what is usual.

It is this sort of thinking that has liberal critics condemning Heidegger as allowing space for such expressions as Nazism in his thinking. Zizek claims that to level this critique is to confuse the two violences. He writes in his typical style,

What one is tempted to add here is that, in the case of Nazism (and fascism in general), [is that] the constellation of violence is rather the opposite: crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not 'essential' enough. Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to focus on destroying an invented external enemy, Jews).

The courage that Heidegger sought that he did not find in Nazism was the courage to attack, with violence, the ontological order of being that sustained the social order. For this violence to be in some way transformative then it must someone be able to be turned also on one's self.
I am not entirely sure how I feel about this chapter but what it did raise for me was the question of violence in the Old Testament, particularly the 'Conquest Narratives'. What appears to be necessary for Heidegger and Zizek is the presence of totality in revolutionary movements, complete abandonment and commitment. There is this sort of absoluteness in the God's violent edicts of the Israelites entering the land. Reality consists of symbolic actions under the sovereignty of God. The actions of the Israelites needed to reflect complete trust in God. The sin of the people was not the violence but the half-measures of violence. The violence that still in some way served the people themselves. I am running out of steam and time here but the further question would then of course be how this relates to the question of violence and Jesus. Is there any sense in which Jesus acted as 'violent one' in order to open up the space of transformation?


Anonymous said...

Hey just made a post inspired by your own over at my own blog:

Heidegger's silence is something we need to talk openly about, but not as a fault in Heidegger, but as a fault of our own stunted pretense to doing philosophy. We all know what Nietzsche says, what Heidegger is pointing out, but we live precisely in the herd or the they as if we'd rejected these texts. Yet here we are discussing precisely these texts at conferences or in the bar as if they were meaningful.

Are we turning these thinkers into precisely what they despised? Should we? Are we nay-sayers?


IndieFaith said...

I actually don't have enough background in Nietzsche or Heidegger to be quite sure what you are talking about. Overall you appear to be wary of the domestication of such authors. What sparked my interest in this example was whether there can be an understanding of violence that allows me to make a connection to the 'violent' God of the Old Testament with the 'non-violent' Jesus of the New Testament.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I have seen Zizek's new book but due to low finances and stacks of other stuff I'm currently working through I held off on buying it. You've piqued my interest though in Zizek's chapter on Heidegger, so I may have to try and track down a copy.

The connection of Heidegger and Nazism has been an interest of mine over the past few months since I started working through the work of Immanuel Levinas. Levinas sat under Heidegger for a time and was fascinated with his work, so much so that he had begun a multi-volume work on his philosophy which was never completed. For Levinas, being a Jew and losing several members of his family during the reign of Nazi power, the ties of Heidegger to Nazism were devastating. During the period of Heidegger's connection with Nazism and afterwards, Levinas's tone changed dramatically in his writings about Heidegger, arguing that his conceptions of ontology, which consumed the Other into the I without allowing for difference of the Other to be definitive, were tied to his Nazi affiliation.

At this point I'm not sure what to make of Heidegger connection to Nazism. I have read little of Heidegger firsthand, and don't currently have time to either, so I'm always keeping an eye out for those that address this thorny issue.

I know the Nazi connection isn't your main interest in your post, but I appreciate it nonetheless as it's given me another resource to look into on this question.