The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology

The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology

by Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, Kenneth Reinhard

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In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud made abundantly clear what he thought about the biblical injunction, first articulated in Leviticus 19:18 and then elaborated in Christian teachings, to love one's neighbor as oneself. "Let us adopt a naive attitude towards it," he proposed, "as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unableSee more details below


In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud made abundantly clear what he thought about the biblical injunction, first articulated in Leviticus 19:18 and then elaborated in Christian teachings, to love one's neighbor as oneself. "Let us adopt a naive attitude towards it," he proposed, "as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unable then to suppress a feeling of surprise and bewilderment." After the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, Stalinism, and Yugoslavia, Leviticus 19:18 seems even less conceivable—but all the more urgent now—than Freud imagined.

In The Neighbor, three of the most significant intellectuals working in psychoanalysis and critical theory collaborate to show how this problem of neighbor-love opens questions that are fundamental to ethical inquiry and that suggest a new theological configuration of political theory. Their three extended essays explore today's central historical problem: the persistence of the theological in the political. In "Towards a Political Theology of the Neighbor," Kenneth Reinhard supplements Carl Schmitt's political theology of the enemy and friend with a political theology of the neighbor based in psychoanalysis. In "Miracles Happen," Eric L. Santner extends the book's exploration of neighbor-love through a bracing reassessment of Benjamin and Rosenzweig. And in an impassioned plea for ethical violence, Slavoj Žižek's "Neighbors and Other Monsters" reconsiders the idea of excess to rehabilitate a positive sense of the inhuman and challenge the influence of Levinas on contemporary ethical thought.

A rich and suggestive account of the interplay between love and hate, self and other, personal and political, The Neighbor will prove to be a touchstone across the humanities and a crucial text for understanding the persistence of political theology in secular modernity.

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University of Chicago Press
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Religion and Postmodernism Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Neighbor

Three Inquiries in Political Theology


Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70739-6

Chapter One


Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor

In The Concept of the Political (1932), Carl Schmitt writes: "the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy." However, in his book Political Theology (1922), Schmitt presented a quite different, even contradictory, logic of the political. There, the structural function of the exception-the sovereign's Godlike ability to declare a state of emergency and act outside the law-implies that the border between the law and lawlessness is permeable and, by extension, that the relationship of interiority (friends) and exteriority (enemies) is unstable. The fact that Schmitt's political theology generates antitheses that it cannot maintain should not invalidate what we can take as its fundamental insight, that the political order is sustained by theological concepts that it cannot completely assimilate. The friend-enemy distinction remains significant when we understand it as a symptom of political theology, an attempt to formalize the political against the threat of the theological-that is, as the political's defense againstdestabilizing aspects of its own theologism.

Rather than abandoning political theology because of these contradictions, we need to push it further. The structural analogy of sovereignty to deity that grants the sovereign God's authority to decree an exception also suggests that the sovereign's legitimacy derives in part from the divine claim to the fidelity of love: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). For the political theological tradition represented by Machiavelli, the key question may be whether it is better for the sovereign to be loved or feared. The theology of the Hebrew Bible, however, does not oppose those passionate relationships; God is to be loved and feared. In a famous midrash on the giving of the law at Sinai, God holds the mountain over the people and makes them an offer they can't refuse: "If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, your grave will be right here." The legitimacy of the law established at Sinai is based on a consent in excess of freedom of choice and a love indistinguishable from fear. Hence, we find an affective correlate of the paradoxical topology of sovereignty in the ambivalence that underlies the commandment to love God-a commandment that, like all commandments to love, has at its heart the collision of autonomy and heteronomy. Insofar as this antinomy includes both sides of the double genitive of "love of God," we can propose it as the mysterium sanctum underlying political theology, the implicit credo of sovereignty that informs the hierarchy of relations within family, polis, and ecclesia.

But in both Jewish and Christian doxology, love of God is conventionally paired with love of the neighbor, as two essentially linked imperatives or theological-ethical principles. In this essay, I bring the psychoanalytic commentary on the neighbor in the work of Freud and Lacan into relation with the logic of political theology theorized by Schmitt, in order to begin to specify the conditions of a political theology of the neighbor. Freud's writing is centrally relevant to a political theology of the neighbor, as the other side of the political theology of the friend and enemy, most notably in his late works Civilization and Its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism. However, the neighbor and neighbor-love appear over the entire range of his writings, from his earliest unpublished drafts to Wilhelm Fliess through his last works. Although Lacan's most famous remarks on the neighbor appear in his seminar 7, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the neighbor and neighbor-love are frequent topics of his writing and seminars. In Totem and Taboo, Freud presents a mythical genealogy of the paternal law remarkably similar to Schmitt's theory of sovereignty. Like the sovereign, the father of the primal horde has the singular ability to transgress the law in the very process of embodying and enforcing it. Freud appropriates the narrative of the primal father in order to explain the genesis of the law and to stage a mythical "primal scene" of the origins of the superego's conflicting imperatives for and against enjoyment. In seminar 17, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan introduces the "discourse of the master" in part as a formalization of the structure of Freud's narrative of the primal horde. And in the years between seminar 17 and seminar 21, Lacan rethought the discourse of the master in the language of symbolic logic and set theory as part of his "formulas of sexuation," where the structural parallels with Schmitt's political theology become most striking.

Indeed, just as Schmitt insists that what is at stake in sovereignty is the ability to decide when to declare a state of emergency, without needing any grounds or basis for the decision, so, according to Lacan, to participate in one of the two logics that define sexuation is, paradoxically, to have chosen to be a man or a woman. If Schmitt's account of the sovereign exception can be mapped onto the man's side of Lacan's formulas of sexuation, what, we might wonder, are the political implications corresponding to the other choice of sexuation, that of the woman? According to Lacan, the position of the woman entails a different logic, and implies an entirely distinct account of individual and group relations, under the aegis of what he calls the "not-all" (pas-tout). Whereas the position of man is held vis-à-vis a totality of Men, Lacan argues that women do not participate in a general category of Woman, but enter into their sexuality "one by one," as part of an infinite series of exceptions that form a radically open set, a "not-all." Can we locate in the not-all a political theology of the neighbor? That is, a mode of political relation that would not be based on the friend-enemy couple, but on the neighbor as a third term, one that is obscured by Schmitt's binary opposition, but that is no less central to religious discourse, sociality, and political theology? I do not mean to argue that we should replace the model of sovereignty based on love of God implicit in Schmitt's political theology with one based on love of neighbor. Rather, my argument is that a political theology of the neighbor must come as a supplement to the political theology of the friend and enemy. It is only by considering the principles of love of God and love of neighbor together, as two halves of the same thought, as is the case in both Jewish and Christian doctrine, that we can begin to imagine other possibilities for social and subjective organization.

Political Theology

The argument for the theological foundations of political theory is, of course, very old. In the last century, though, it has been given what we might call a radically conservative inflection through the ideas of Carl Schmitt, who famously writes that "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." For Schmitt, political theology is the truth of political theory in two ways. First, Schmitt defines sovereignty not according to its normative juridical and executive functions, but in terms of its extraordinary or exceptional powers. The sovereign is the one who can suspend the law in time of emergency, in part or in toto, for the sake of its ultimate restitution and the preservation of the polis. Just as God suspends the laws of nature in miracles, so the sovereign is empowered to interrupt the laws of the state, to decide if and when to act, without the support of precedent or previously determined principles. Second, Schmitt claims that the essential logic of the political lies in the opposition between the categories of "friend" and "enemy," an antithesis not of pathos but of ethos. The polis requires the ever-present "real possibility" of war for the concepts friend and enemy to retain their validity, and the exceptional decision to go to war constitutes the purest manifestation of the political as such. I would argue, moreover, that there is an implicit link between these two elements of Schmitt's thinking: the ultimate justification of the sovereign's ability to decide on the exception is that it is meant to restore or ratify the essential political distinction between friend and enemy, however tendentious that opposition may be. There are fundamental differences, however, in the topologies implied here: if the principle of the friend-enemy opposition is based on the purity of the demarcation between interior and exterior, the assumption of a strict and recognizable difference between "us" and "them," the principle of sovereign exceptionality involves a more complex spatial logic. Is the sovereign inside or outside the law that he or she may decide to suspend at any moment? Sovereignty, Schmitt argues, is a "borderline" concept-a concept both of the border and at the border of conceptuality. To borrow a term from Lacan, we might describe this topology as one of "extimacy," insofar as the sovereign is paradoxically both inside and outside the law. Moreover, Schmitt's concept of the political is theological in its manner of bridging these two topologies: just as in the Bible God's inaugural declaration "let there be light" was an extraordinary and fully arbitrary intervention of creation ex nihilo into the "darkness" of primal chaos, a cut that divided the world into stable oppositions of "light" and "darkness," so at the moment of emergency the sovereign transgresses the limits of the law for the sake of the reemergence of the fundamental opposition between friend and enemy that establishes the foundation of the political world.

The figure of the enemy in Schmitt's 1932 The Concept of the Political is drained of all animus. The enemy, according to Schmitt, is not evil:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.... The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specifically intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.... Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict. Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent's way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one's own form of existence.

The political emerges in a process that seems to have, on the one hand, the characteristics of formal logic, the "union or separation" of two groups, friends and enemies; and, on the other, an intensely personal, existential moment of "recognition," "understanding," and "judgment" for the particular subjects involved. The Friend and the Enemy form twin imagos for the national and subjective ethos, figures of positive and negative political ontology by which the interior "we" (the "I" and its friends) is identified as such, as distinguished from the exterior "they." If the "extreme case" of battle to the death with the enemy is the formal scene always on the horizon, as in the Hegelian dialectic of intersubjectivity, the decision to engage in war is radically contingent, not determined by any necessity. The act of war, in this sense, is the exception that proves the political rule, the self-identity of the state. And it is precisely insofar as this decisive act is always that of an individual subject, the "actual participants" in conflict, that subjectivity too becomes an instance of self-sovereignty.

One problem with this account of the political, where we divide the world into friends we identify with and enemies we define ourselves against, is that it is fragile, liable to break down or even to invert and oscillate in the face of complex situations. But it is precisely in its inadequacy to the world we live in that Schmitt's account of the friend-enemy distinction is most useful: today, we find ourselves in a world from which the political may have already disappeared, or at least has mutated into some strange new shape. A world not anchored by the "us" and "them" oppositions that flourished as recently as the Cold War is one subject to radical instability, both subjectively and politically. The disappearance of the enemy results in something like global psychosis: since the mirroring relationship between Friend and Enemy provides a form of stability, albeit one based on projective identifications and repudiations, the loss of the enemy threatens to destroy what Lacan calls the "imaginary tripod" (trépied imaginaire) that props up the psychotic with a sort of pseudo-subjectivity, until something causes it to collapse, resulting in full-blown delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Hence, for Schmitt, a world without enemies is much more dangerous than one where one is surrounded by enemies. As Derrida writes, the disappearance of the enemy opens the door for "an unheard-of violence, the evil of a malice knowing neither measure nor ground, an unleashing incommensurable in its unprecedented-therefore monstrous-forms; a violence in the face of which what is called hostility, war, conflict, enmity, cruelty, even hatred, would regain reassuring and ultimately appeasing contours, because they would be identifiable." America today is desperately unsure about both its enemies and its friends, and hence deeply uncertain about itself. The rhetoric of the so-called war on terror is a sign of the disappearance of the traditional, localizable enemy: the terrorist does not have the stabilizing function that Schmitt associates with the enemy, but to declare war on him is to attempt to resuscitate the enemy's failing animus.

Derrida's argument in The Politics of Friendship is not so much that we have entered into a historical period where the friend-enemy polarity has broken down, but that it is an inherently unstable opposition. Derrida's account of how the enemy and friend come to displace and infect each other in his reading of Schmitt leads him to propose "a step (not) beyond the political":

Let us not forget that the political would precisely be that which thus endlessly binds or opposes the friend-enemy/enemy-friend couple in the drive or decision of death.... A hypothesis, then: and what if another lovence (in friendship or in love) were bound to an affirmation of life, to the endless repetition of this affirmation, only in seeking its way ... in the step beyond the political, or beyond that political as the horizon of finitude ... the phileîn beyond the political or another politics for loving.

This other "politics for loving" that Derrida hypothesizes, this love both beyond and not-beyond the political, must still remain in the vicinity of the theological if it is to be significant, in Schmitt's terms, and not merely a fantasy of some purely secular politics. I would like to suggest that such a politics can be located in the figure of the neighbor-the figure that materializes the uncertain division between the friend/family/ self and the enemy/stranger/other.

There is an element of this political theology of the neighbor that we can already point to in Derrida's comments on Schmitt's reference to Jesus's call to "love your enemies" in Matthew. For Schmitt, this biblical reference points to a linguistic distinction in Greek and Latin (but not German or English) between the private inimicos, who may indeed be loved or hated, and the public hostis, the political enemy, who, according to Schmitt, is not an object of affect. But as Derrida points out in a reading of this passage in The Gift of Death, the full line from Matthew that Schmitt refers to involves a crucial reference to the neighbor: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you ..." (5:43-44). Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18, the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself," but adds to it something not present in the Hebrew Bible, a directive to "hate thine enemy," in order to make it seem that he is undoing a piece of legal vengeance and, in proclaiming Love your enemies, is asserting its opposite. In fact, the biblical passage in Leviticus Jesus refers to has just specifically forbidden vengeance. Jesus acts here as a sovereign, in declaring an exception ("love your enemies") to a law ("hate thine enemy") that he himself has confected; Jesus's commandment to love the enemy must be perceived as not merely new, but antinomian, in violation of the preexisting legal code. Jesus's act of suspending a law that did not previously exist is not merely his exercise of the sovereign prerogative of exception, but an act of political-theological creation ex nihilo, truly a polemical "miracle."


Excerpted from The Neighbor by SLAVOJ ZIZEK ERIC L. SANTNER KENNETH REINHARD Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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