Slavoj Žižek and Mysticism: Introducing Žižek to a ‘Caste’ Indian Audience — Umar Nizarudeen

Žižek’s infamous scatological joke connecting German, French and English style toilets with the philosophical traditions of those nations (French revolutionary haste reflected in shit disappearing fast and out of sight, German contemplative idealism reflected in stools floating on water to be inspected for signs of disease etc, and English utilitarian pragmatism combining the best of both these worlds, shitwise) led him to collaborate with an Indian publishing house Navayana and its publisher S. Anand, who had written to Žižek pointing out the fact of manual scavenging in India and its not so rosy implications for Indian philosophical traditions. Žižek also delivered an annual Navayana lecture in Delhi in 2011. This collaboration also led to Navayana publishing Žižek’s take on the global financial crisis, First as Tragedy, then as Farce. He also conversed with sanitation staff in Delhi and attended a session organized by DC Books in Kochi. Žižek also frequently cites the writer Arundhati Roy and the academic Saroj Giri as his ‘Indian friends.’ He often casually claims that there is a ‘huge uprising’ going on in India chez the Maoists. Otherwise Žižek’s engagement with India and its religio-philosophical traditions are pretty limited save the occasional reference to Ambedkar or Buddhism and pejorative quotations from Manu (It doesn’t look good for Manu!), which are often curtailed by his own flights of rhetorical fancy. One of the aims of this research is to address this lacuna in Žižek studies and bring his enormous edifice of conceptual thinking in contact with Indian textual traditions.

The incredible profusion of social and political currents that have emerged in India post-independence and at least some of which can be traced back to the medieval tradition of Bhakti, finds no place in Žižek’s limited engagement with India. Equally significant is the process by which Eastern religious traditions, save Semitic ones, are rendered anathemas to Žižek. ‘Capitalism with Asian values’ emerging in places like China and India under authoritarian leaders is the Achilles heel of that system according to Žižek, which in Europe had at least acted as a harbinger of democracy post the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has been one of Žižek’s major concerns, where he takes off from Thomas Piketty’s celebrated book Capital. The argument that oriental values and systems are hierarchical and hence do not respect individuality to the point of idiosyncrasy would dovetail into Žižek’s entrenched critiques of the same. Bhakti, at least according to Vijay Nambisan’s reading, along with caste has been one of the banes of Indian society, due to its promoting of a servile, unctuous culture of servitude and devotion to deity or master. Thus Bhakti cannot be directly addressed by referring to the corpus of Žižek’s hitherto published work. But the same would be possible, if one were to go about it indirectly and thus, to paraphrase his own words contra Deleuze, ‘take Žižek from behind.’ The progeny of that copulation need not necessarily be Eurosceptic or counter-enlightenment in outlook. Kriya Bhakti as in the Vachanakaras ‘Kayakave Kailasa’ (work is worship) is the site of jouissance, just as Lacan says that work is the site of jouissance. Bhakti is the divine love of deity, the epitome of perfection, by the imperfect human being.

Žižek argues that it is precisely this imperfection that allows for love to emerge: we love the other because of the other’s imperfection, not despite it. (Pound, 32)

Žižek’s antipathy to Oriental religion is a case of Freudian negation. While detesting it in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis (refugees are welcome so long as they adapt), he is pushing himself more and more into the arms of the orient a la Flaubert and the courtesan.

A lateral rather than head-on engagement with Žižek would be more fruitful. As Ezhuthachchan says in his ‘Adhyatmaramayanam,’ ‘the world, lulled, keeps seeking sensual pleasures all the while being devoured by the snake of time.’ Here, one finds a lateral readjustment of reality and its time frame and not an intense apocalyptic vision with sparks of lightning and claps of thunder. This lateral movement and the impetus that it would provide to the study of Bhakti movement, rather than a dialectic of conflicting positions is all that is sought within this study. Ezhuthachan himself was called ‘kallukudiyan’ or drunkard, this divine intoxication or possession, Žižek calls the constitutive moment of becoming human.

Madness is not therefore simply an aberration of the given order; it is the constitutive moment of becoming human. (Pound, 32).

Žižek’s oeuvre as well as Bhakti as a movement is interstitial and porous in nature. For many people Žižek lacks analytical rigour. This research would also contend that the ratio cognoscendi of the Žižekian theoretical edifice is mystical in its amorphousness, one which encompasses areas as wide and varied as cinema studies and quantum mechanics.

In Žižek’s work, by contrast (to Marx), religion is the prerequisite of the critique of ideology. The religious critique of metaphysics is the first critique of ideology, and therefore the critique of ideology already assumes the religious standpoint. (Pound, 53)

For Žižek, speech is not just an articulation of trauma, but also creates that trauma in the first place. This is a kind of symbolic castration as Žižek often reminds hapless academics who are fated to introduce him at seminars. For Žižek to talk about someone while being oblivious to his/her presence is symbolic castration [1]. Speech is not merely an effusion of inner turmoil and latent energies, but also the prime cause of that trauma. Speech is a post-partum depression where the subject is tortured into revealing. The psychoanalytic school would read texts for symptoms. But post the linguistic turn, it is the entry into language which is unbearable for the subject. It is the act of getting born, by bootstrap loading. Language is not just the house of being, it is also the torture house of being [2].

Umar Nizarudeen teaches at the Government College Madapally, University of Calicut in Kerala. He was a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


[1] Thanks for a castrating experience is what Žižek would say.

[2] An analogue would be how social reform often creates the very orthodoxy it is supposed to repel.

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