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On Belief (review)

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 37, Number 1, 2004
pp. 96-99 | 10.1353/par.2004.0012

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 37.1 (2004) 96-99

On Belief . Slavoj Zizek. London: Routledge, 2001. Pp. 170. $12.95, paperback.

Socrates forced Gorgias to admit that rhetoric is a "producer of . . . belief," and thus assigned to the rhetorician, rather than the philosopher, the ubiquitous task of adumbrating the contours of belief. In the last two centuries, however, the relationship between rhetoric and belief has been called into question. Kant, for example, although he recognized the private and practical importance of belief, held that, owing to its subjective foundations, it does "not allow of being communicated . . . to others." Although Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explicitly distance themselves from the Kantian disregard of belief by claiming that the subjective is precisely the "sphere of rhetoric," they nonetheless conclude that rhetoric "assumes a significance beyond mere subjective belief." Richard Rorty, for his part, would like to see belief completely privatized. It is important to note that such banishment of belief from the public sphere would simultaneously constitute the banishment of belief from the realm of rhetoric. Despite this trend, current events and new academic studies in religion and public life suggest that the present moment is an appropriate time to reconsider the rhetorical value of belief. Enter Slavoj Zizek. Although Zizek is a philosopher by trade and thus On Belief is not a product of anything called a "rhetorical tradition," rhetoricians will most certainly be provoked by the rhetorical possibilities and limitations of Zizek's discourse on belief.

That said, it must be immediately noted that On Belief is only instrumentally concerned with its titular topic. As Zizek progressively makes clear, the ultimate task of On Belief is political; it is concerned with the possibility of radical intervention into the public sphere. To this end, Zizek distinguishes between "formal freedom" and "actual freedom." The former is the subjective freedom to choose "WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations," and the latter is a freedom that "undermines these very coordinates" (122; emphasis always original). Displaying his ability to invoke a wide range of texts, Zizek draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Heideggerian being-ness, the human genome project, contemporary literature, popular film, Lenin, and Jesus to argue that belief—indeed, something very much like religious belief—is the prerequisite of actual freedom.

How so? Zizek's argument begins with the impossibility of anything Real inside the domain of symbolism. This, then, is the "symbolic Law": symbolicity prohibits knowledge outside itself and, as such, there is no room for the Kantian "thing-in-itself" or, what admittedly amounts to the same, the "Freudian-Lacanian Thing" (97). To the extent that the symbolic Law holds sway, there is no possibility of undermining the coordinates of existing power relations. In the domain of symbolism actual freedom is an impossibility, for in "an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to BREAK the seductive power of symbolic efficiency" (121).

Fortunately for Zizek, symbolicity undermines its own efficiency. Drawing on Lacan, Zizek argues that the totalitarian claim of symbolism (that would exclude extra-symbolic knowledge) itself generates desires for the extra-symbolic—the Thing, "the irreducible kernel of the Real." These desires for the Real are not, of course, satisfied: "The Thing is nothing but its own lack, the elusive specter of the lost primordial object of desire engendered by the symbolic Law/Prohibition" (97). This failure of desire, however, is not entirely fruitless. Zizek draws on Adorno's "negative dialectics" to demonstrate that the Real might well be attained through repetitive failure: "[O]ne tries to grasp/conceive the object of thought; one fails, missing it, and through these very failures the place of the targeted object is encircled, its contours become discernible" (88). This encircled void is the "impossible/real Thing" (97).

It is difficult to overstate the importance Zizek places on the impossible Thing, the repeatedly encircled elusive specter. It is a remainder—it is that which "STICKS OUT from the organic whole, the excess which cannot be incorporated/integrated" (96). Indeed, this excess is the human condition; in unapologetically essentializing terms Zizek declares that "man is ultimately an animal whose life is derailed through the excessive fixation to some traumatic thing" (103). The trauma attendant upon the...

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