The Role of Justice and Ethics in Interfaith Dialogue (VIDEO)

I gave a talk down in Nashville recently with a group called the Family of Abraham, a multi-faith organization that formed in response to intense religious intolerance following the attempt to ban shariah law in Tennessee.  The local newspaper in Nashville, the Tennessean wrote a nice piece on the event, which you can read here, and see my lecture and a panel discussion afterwards in the video embedded below.

In this talk I claim that in order to effectively combat bigotry we need to understand that it is a form of violence that’s rooted in a lack of justice in society. To understand the way in which bigotry manifests, I rely on Zizek’s three types of violence (subjective, objective, and symbolic) and I locate bigotry as a form of objective violence, where we turn the Other into an object of hatred. Thus, I claim that bigotry is often a displaced form of violence that is tied to a lack of justice.  I claim that the tradition of ethics from the Abrahamic faiths as realized in Levinas’ philosophy helps us to understand a deeper logic that both traumatizes us and thus also problematizes our relations to Others, but also shows the radical level of connectivity that we have to Others at the pre-discruve level.

I also invoke what I call psychoanalysis’ ethics of impossible alterity and argue that this must be the standard for how we form relations across lines of difference.  I distill Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis down to the claim, apropos interfaith justice work that any true encounter with the Other is traumatic because if it is truly authentic, I am unable to be put back into my position of self-centeredness – even though that might be what I desire.  There is always a gap separating me from the Other when I discover the Other in their real state or condition.


This form of ethics shows us that when we encounter the Other most authentically, it is not necessarily discovered through learning about the others scripture, or their morality, or even their faith – but it is discovered when the other presents us with a demand that we can’t adequately fulfill.

By becoming more fluent with these ethical streams of thought, I try to offer a model of understanding the Other that tackles justice, and does not see unity in diversity as an end in itself, but a model of interfaith justice that goes beyond some of the short comings of multicultural tolerance.

Breaking the Cycle: Faith Communities and the Transformation of Bigotry

Panel at 2012 Žižek Studies Conference: “The Perverted Subject Does (not) Exist: Subjectivity and Žižek’s Ethics”

I’m very happy to announce a panel I’m putting together at the 2012 Žižek Studies Conference, “Neo-liberal Perversions: Fantasy and Gaze in Contemporary Culture” at the College at Brockport (SUNY) April 28-29, 2012.

At the recommendation of the conference director, Antonio Garcia (a great guy), I invited a few friends from the European Graduate School to present papers on Žižek’s ethics under the “Other” track. I think the papers that our team has come up with look very promising.

My own paper is based in part on a piece I wrote for the San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies, “The Object of Proximity” when I was a graduate student at American University.

I hope that you can join us for what promises to be an incredible conference. Oh, and did I mention that Žižek will be there too?

Go here to register. The registration should be up by March 5th at the latest.

Here is what we came up with, see description of the panel and the title of each paper below.

Panel Abstract:

As Žižek reminds us, in his work on ethics, when faced with the ethical injunction “to love thy neighbor as thyself,” the postmodern multiculturalist approach keeps at bay the proximity of the neighbor, opting for an experience of the decaffeinated, “PC other”. For Lacan, a subject truly encounters the Other not when one discover her values, dreams, and wishes, but when the subject encounters the neighbor as jouissance. This encounter is characterized as monstrous, traumatic, and inhabiting the dimension of the real. It also becomes the founding of all ethics, as that which throws the subject out of joint.

Ultimately, the other of the real does not exist, and no reciprocal exchange is possible. In order to render bearable our coexistence with the thingness of the other in the real, we turn to the symbolic order that is either deprived of this monstrous thingness resulting in a flat, Habermasian lifeless and regulated sphere of communication, devoid of desire, or an excessive desire that is unable to be assimilated into the symbolic and teetering on fantasy.

Žižek does not waver in his radical call to stay true to loving the neighbor qua traumatic thing, a position he finds support for in the Old Testament and St. Paul. As one of our presenters will argue, Žižek’s subject is able to step out of the symbolic and into what German idealism called “radical negativity,” making his ethics one tied not to a lethal suicidal submersion into the thing, but one that desires a radical break with the fantasmatic coordinates of the symbolic.

This panel is the result of an ongoing debate and exchange amongst students of Žižek at the European Graduate School. We propose nothing less than a dialogue on and examination of Žižek’s ethical theory by working through his core concepts of subjectivity, otherness, and the way in which other psychoanalysts and continental thinkers inform his theory.

The paradoxical position of the subject constituted via the non-relation to the Other will orient the panel. What does the shrugging off of the big Other and fantasy imply for ethics? Does the other exist in Žižek’s ethical framework? One presenter claims that Žižek’s insistence upon Hegelian repetition is rooted in a theory of a subject that indeed exists; the perverted subject, that stems largely from a latent influence of the philosophers of life, specifically Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze.

Our presenters will approach the question of the perverted subject from a number of different angles. One paper poses the notion of “distributed desire” as the emblematic feature of Badiou’s “faithful subject” emerging from the Event, putting into question Žižek’s perverted subject. Other papers will look at Žižek’s ambiguous allegiance to Paulinian militant ethics, examining the deadlock in today’s political theology, and looking towards a new conception of alterity. To complement our more theoretical presentations, the panel is excited to examine Žižek’s notions of alterity via popular culture, by asking: “Is Žižek Fanon for White People?”


Bree Wooten, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Repetition in Hegel: The Perverted Subject Exists”

Am Johal, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Is Žižek Fanon For White People? Reading Žižek Through Fanon”

George Elerick, Graduate Student at Exeter University, “The (dis)crete Psycho-Trauma in the Double-Return of the Other”

Panel Chair: Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, FRCP(C), FAPA, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “This Desire That Isn’t Mine: Distributed Desire and the Consciousless Subject”

Daniel Tutt, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Radical Love and Žižek’s Ethics of Singularity”

Justin Joque, University of Michigan Libraries / European Graduate School, “The Third and the Other: Towards a Žižekian Ethic of Networked Life”

What’s a Face? Why Dismantle It?

Norman Mailer once said that at a certain age, we all have the face we deserve. The face doesn’t lie. The face is universal. We wear a face, it doesn’t wear us. The distinction is crucial.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the face in A Thousand Plateaus, entitled, Year Zero: Faciality, we find a very subtle attack on Levinas’ “face of the other” in so far as they take up the question of the face and its ontological genesis and role constituting subjects.

The basic point of the essay is that the face is imposed on us universally, and we are overcode with faces, constantly over-determining our identities. We typically think that particular identities are able to coexist within an environment where dominant identities determine the field. D & G point out that particular subjects can escape the universality of the face, which they see as tied to a very specific western European historical experience – i.e. to the face is Christ.

But the essay is really a critique of the “ethical turn” in philosophy, particularly the ethics of Levinas’ “face of the other,” which posits that commitment to the other exceeds our capacity to adequately respond; a position that results in a fragile and sentimentalized other – one in which Judith Butler and Simon Critchley operationalize for their respective projects.

For Levinas, ethics is not about life, but about something more than life. A secular ethics ultimately that, unlike Kierkegaard, is not based on God, but on a third party that intervenes in the “I – other” exchange prior to its material occurrence and results in a traumatic leveling of the subject and serves as an almost pacifying role.

Ultimately, despite his ambiguous relationship to God, Levinas argues that the encounter with the face of the other results in the Biblical injunction, “thou shalt not kill me.”

Levinas’ face is a universal, and it arises pre-discursively (prior to language) and importantly, it is a material face. Deleuze and Guattari situate the ontological origin of the face with the white man, and more specifically, with Christ. From this premise they seek to construct the way in which “facialization” (the imposition onto the subject to assume their/a face). Facialization was spread everywhere by white Europeans, and their critique offers a way to understand racism.

As they point out:

“Racism operates by the determination of degrees of deviance to the White man’s face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given place under given conditions, in a ghetto, or sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity” (Pg. 178 A Thousand Plateaus).

Year Zero: Faciality

What’s in a Face?

The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems.

Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects – facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing – as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”

Since the face is not a transcendent, wholly, or absolutely other for D & G (as far as I can tell) – it seems that the face, the process of faciality moves far way from Levinas’ third other – as that wholly Other that intervenes between the two material others in the world. D & G’s face is historically invented, albeit invoking an unknown, unexplored landscape. “All landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face,” and they “develop a face to come or already past” (Pg. 178 A Thousand Plateaus).

The face is a part of a surface system, and the face is produced as an overcoding. But a face relies on an abstract machine. At every moment, the abstract machine rejects nonconformity – it has a yes/no algorithm.

Dismantling the Face

Where I think D & G wind up short is in their dismantling of the face. What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus) – but it is here that problems arise.

What about shame? Sure, a face is something that you wear as a mask and is the result of years of internalized oppression – think of the radical destroying of historically oppressed identities under Malcom X and the proto-Islamic early twentieth century movements. Were those movements ever able to remove the face? They may have removed the face without shame, but my question is the face is something that only the schizo can eradicate?

As D & G navigate the waters of faciality, they opt for the deployment of a body that moves in aborescent speeds and rhizomatic patterns to resist the abstract machines that over-code the process of becoming facialized.

Dismantling the face means to “no longer look into the eyes, but to swim through them, to close your eyes, to close your own eyes, and make your body a beam of light moving at ever-increasing speed?” (Pg. 187 A Thousand Plateaus).