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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004) 501-521

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From Politics to Biopolitics . . . and Back

In our Western tradition, the exemplary case of a traumatic Real is the Jewish Law. In the Jewish tradition, the divine Mosaic Law is experienced as something externally imposed, contingent, and traumatic—in short, as an impossible/real Thing that "makes the law." What is arguably the ultimate scene of religious-ideological interpellation—the pronouncement of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai—is the very opposite of something that emerges "organically" as the outcome of the path of self-knowing and self-realization. The Judeo-Christian tradition is thus to be strictly opposed to the New Age gnostic problematic of self-realization or self-fulfillment: when the Old Testament enjoins you to love and respect your neighbor, this does not refer to your imaginary semblable/double, but to the neighbor qua traumatic Thing. In contrast to the New Age attitude that ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror image or to the means on the path to self-realization (like the Jungian psychology in which other persons around me are ultimately reduced to the externalizations/projections of the different disavowed aspects of my personality), Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in [End Page 501] my Neighbor—the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me.

The Jewish commandment that prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one's neighbor is the only terrain of religious practice, of where the divine dimension is present in our lives—"no images of God" does not point toward a gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine that is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: You want to be religious? Okay, prove it here, in the "works of love," in the way you relate to your neighbors. . . . We have here a nice case of the Hegelian reversal of reflexive determination into determinate reflection: instead of saying "God is love," we should say "Love is divine" (and, of course, the point is not to conceive of this reversal as the standard humanist platitude. It is for this precise reason that Christianity, far from standing for a regression toward an image of God, only draws the consequence of the Jewish iconoclasm through asserting the identity of God and man).

If, then, the modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in this Jewish notion of the Neighbor as the abyss of Otherness, how did we reach the weird contemporary negative link between Decalogue (the traumatically imposed divine Commandments) and human rights? That is to say, within our postpolitical liberal-permissive society, human rights are ultimately, in their innermost, simply the rights to violate the Ten Commandments. "The right to privacy"—the right to adultery, done in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe into my life. "The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property"—the right to steal (to exploit others). "Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion"—the right to lie. "The right of the free citizens to possess weapons"—the right to kill. And, ultimately, "freedom of religious belief"—the right to celebrate false gods.1 Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the Commandments—the point is just that they keep open a marginal "gray zone," which should remain out of reach of (religious or secular) power: in this shady zone, I can violate the commandments, and if the power probes into it, catching me with my pants down and trying to prevent my violations, I can cry, "Assault on my basic human rights!" The point is thus that it is structurally impossible, for the Power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the "misuse" of the Right, while not infringing on the proper use—that is, the use that does not violate the Commandments. The first step in this direction...


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pp. 501-521
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Archived 2004
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