Žižek, Levi-Strauss, & the one called Christ: A Harmony of Sorts

by jdavidcharles

The read Žižek gives to Claude Levi-Strauss’ account of the zero-institution as it appears in his Structural Anthropology  is certainly an intriguing one.  In short, Žižek analyzes the zero-institution as rooted in a trauma—a gash in the structure of things, a singular void which is the precondition of a given binary (or any sort of opposing multiplicity). Žižek opposes  this to the “postmodern” (a word I still cringe at due to its vast functional abuse in academic spheres) view which would have it that any interpretation is a valid interpretation, each viewpoint is “correct,” but, for Žižek this denies the radically real absence of trauma whose deep-seated negation is constitutive of actual activity (of the binary, multiplicity, etc).

So, for instance, Žižek views the so-called “gender binary” as being such a zero-institute—for him the “postmodern” answer to the binary would be that there is no true binary, any view of gender is valid and any expression is valid: everything is socially constructed and infinitely referential so of course anything is as valid as anything else. And although Žižek agrees with the non-essentialist implications, i.e. the validity of gender expression, he radically disagrees with the clean-cut symmetry implied (all viewpoints are equal, flat, open, infinite). Being the Hegelian he is, Žižek sees this as myopic and dismissive of the history of gender and its “traditional” reduction to a binary. For him this zero-institution of gender is at heart a trauma, a rift which split things up, and there is something about this wound which “pushes” persons into this binary (or tries to at the very least). In this rather clever way Žižek is left with a non-essentialist binary, a materialist dialectic which is not grounded on some metaphysical injunction. There is a real void at the heart of the “gender binary,” a real violence within the history of gender and sexuality which tears us into its play of opposites.

It is important to note that the expression(s) or multiplicity that arises is one that is tendential and tentative, it is symbolic and mutable—it is the trauma itself that is the structurally binding real. Likewise Žižek points out that bipartisanship functions similarly. The two-party system is in one sense arbitrary and insufficient, no one neatly fits into either end of the polarity, but the very fact that there is a two-party system implies a rupture that allows the binary to emerge as such. Not only then is the binary dialectical, but the relation of the trauma to the zero-institution itself is dialectical as well. Just as the trauma split(/birthed) a binary, so too the binary re-veals the trauma (the parent does not exist until the child is born—thus why patristic theologians tended to think of god the father and god the son as being caught in an eternally begetting and being-begotten dialectic).

This is particularly interesting as regards the tradition of “harmonizing” the gospels as we see in such theologians as Tatian. The harmonizing emerges alongside and contemporaneously with hermeneutic difference—as one recognizes dissonance between the gospel texts one is therefore already and concurrently projecting a “completed” Christ. This is an attempt to cover-up the void, to veil the Christ between the texts, the unharmonizable Christ, the Christ who does not speak (or, perhaps more telling, the Christ who isn’t logos). This is the definition of repression—an attempt to narrate the void of trauma by any means necessary accept acknowledge its fundamental constitutive power as an absence. But just like repression, that which is denied squirms out through veiled symbolic language, finite representations which allude towards and “translate” the trauma. Just as “conservatism” does not exhaust American bipartisanship, so too a projected synthesis of the conservative/liberal binary misses the constitutive “center” as well—so too any one gospel does not exhaust Christ and any harmony is at best a projection or fantasy.

And this is because the subject is not any one performance exhaustively nor a magically exhaustive synthetic-aggregate of all of the subject’s performances (or potential performances). The subject is a zero-institute who is only unified in that the “center” of the subject is an absolute void, a void which is manifested in countless opposing performances. This is why Derrida saw Levi-Strauss’ work as a dialectic of de/centering.  Like a “harmony of the gospels” any definition or view of the subject as a definite whole deludes itself into seeing its own synthetic-fantasy rather than stare into the abyss of another person.  The subject is radically real and radically a negation. This is why communication is democracy but sexuality is anarchy. This is also why we can never truly be said to touch another.