The way of the imbecile

The way of the imbecile February 17, 2018

Slavoj Žižek – by Palestra Slavoj Žižek, Secom UnB, Foto: Mariana Costa, 12 March 2013, 20:20 (Slavoj_Žižek_2013_8556931759.jpg) (CC BY 2.0 []), via Flickr
The philosopher Avital Ronell says that we have been having a ‘war on stupid.’ Stupidity, she says, has become the enemy in contemporary Western life. We want to be smart.

As far as I understand Slavoj Žižek, that orientation to the world – the desire to look intelligent, if only in appearance – is the fastest way to be crabbed by ideology. As I’ve written before with respect to Sam Rocha’s work on Žižek, this faux intelligence is the moron’s way: we think we are smart, so we impose our projections of the world onto the world. The moron inhabits the world by seeing it all as a mirror. In the opening pages of Less Than Nothing, Žižek suggests that piercing these shadows means that we have to be dumber than morons. We have to be imbeciles:

Although its origins are murky, it is probably derived from the Latin baculum (stick, walking stick, staff), so an “imbecile” is someone walking around without the help of a stick. One can bring some clarity and logic into the issue if one conceives of the stick on which we all, as speaking beings, have to lean, as language, the symbolic order, that is, what Lacan calls the “big Other.” In this case, the tripartite idiot-imbecile-moron makes sense: the idiot is simply alone, outside the big Other, the moron is within it (dwelling in language in a stupid way), while the imbecile is in between the two – aware of the need for the big Other, but not relying on it, distrusting it, something like the way the Slovene punk group Laibach defined their relationship towards God (and referring to the words on a dollar bill “In God we trust”): “Like Americans, we believe in God, but unlike Americans, we don’t trust him.” In Lacanese, an imbecile is aware that the big Other does not exist, that it is inconsistent, “barred.” So if, measured by the IQ scale, the moron appears brighter than the imbecile, he is too bright for his own good (as reactionary morons, but not imbeciles, like to say about intellectuals). Among the philosophers, the late Wittgenstein is an imbecile par excellence, obsessively dealing with variations of the question of the big Other: is there an agency which guarantees the consistency of our speech? Can we reach certainty about the rules of our speech? (p. 2).

If one wants to speak, then one does not have the luxury of being outside ideology, the fantasy-structure that constitutes the empirical world. But one can be aware of it, even hyper-aware like Žižek, Wittgenstein, and the Lacan who says: ‘I am only relatively stupid – that is to say, I am as stupid as all people – perhaps because I got a little bit enlightened.’ The way of the imbecile is to be very aware of the way she or he is being interpellated, of how she or he is fitting into the codes of speech that cover up what is going on in the void of everyday life. Stupidly, imbeciles know how the institutions of the world are attempting to shape our worlds, and bizarrely, even at personal cost, we don’t give in.

As Forgiveness Sunday is upon us soon, my reflections on the foregoing weeks of Preparation for the Great Fast have led me here. These weeks have led me to become more explicit about my intellectual process, to search out how I came to project myself onto the material I was writing because of the way that I have read texts for most of my life. Through the experience of the house blessing with the Freud candle, I came to understand the process of repression in a new way – as the process that creates the disposition of the moron. I don’t want to be a moron. I want to be an imbecile.

Byung-chul Han even wants to be an idiot. In his latest book Psychopolitics, Han decries the way that social media is not so much a surveillance machine, but enables you to conduct self-surveillance on yourself: ‘The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue, ‘assembly’) of the Digital’ (p. 12). You read about other people’s process, you see what other people are doing, and you engage in a process of self-recrimination for not doing what everybody seems to be doing. Social media, he says, is the mirror, and in it, we see ourselves as ugly. He then says that the ‘idiot is a modern-day heretic,’ and that ‘in the light of increasingly coercive conformism, it is more urgent than ever to heighten heretical consciousness‘ (p. 83). ‘Idiotism opens up virginal space,’ he continues, ‘forging the distance required by thought so that speaking may occur in an entirely different manner. The idiot savant lives in the faraway – like a stylite’ (p. 84). Here, Han conjures the picture of Holy Symeon the Stylite atop his pillar, removed from the world, even plunging his rope into his putrid flesh as a form of bodily training.

Prayer, then, is for idiots, not the intelligent. Han concludes:

Intelligence means choosing-between (inter-legere). It is not entirely free in so far as it is caught in a between, which depends on the system in operation. Intelligence has no access to outside, because it makes a choice between options in a system. Therefore, intelligence does not really exercise free choice: it can only select among the offerings the system affords. Intelligence follows the logic of a system. It is system-immanent. A given system defines a given intelligence. Accordingly, intelligence has no access to what is wholly Other. It inhabits a horizontal plane. In contrast, the idiot has contact with the vertical dimension inasmuch as he takes leave of the prevailing system – that is, abandons intelligence. (p. 85).

The disposition of prayer, Han suggests, is idiotic; agreeing with Žižek, Han declares that it is the idiot who is outside the system who can truly access the reality outside. It is there that G-d is, apart from the projections of fantasy in which the world is presented as a mirror. The imbecile has broken the mirror. For the idiot, there is no mirror.

I do not know if I can be an idiot as long as I live in the world. I am, after all, still on social media, despite Han’s desperate warnings. I wonder if it is possible to read social media as a shattered mirror. I know I am not going on a Facebook fast, so maybe the Fast is the time to try it.

But I feel like I am really becoming an imbecile all the same. My prayer as I move from the Preparation to the Fast tomorrow is that this disposition will begin to take root in me. We’ll see.

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