While the argument in this essay meanders among many topics (as do all of Zizek’s writing), I’m going to focus on the twists and turns of Zizek’s complaint against Levinas.
In the face of our neighbor, do we glimpse the Other as transcendent ground of ethical relations, or spy a terrifying monstrosity from which we hope to turn away?
For Zizek, the topic of the Other must be analyzed through the Lacanian registers of the imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real. Imaginary others- “other people ‘like me,’ my fellow human beings with whom I am engaged in the mirrorlike relationships of competition, mutual recognition, and so forth.” Symbolic ‘big Other’- “the ‘substance’ of our social existence, the impersonal set of rules that coordinate our coexistence.” The ‘Other qua Real’- “the impossible Thing, the ‘inhuman partner,’ the Other with whom no symmetrical dialogue, mediated by the symbolic Order, is possible…And it is crucial to perceive how these three dimensions are hooked up. The neighbor as the Thing means that, beneath the neighbor as my semblant, my mirror image, there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of a monstrous Thing that cannot be ‘gentrified’”(143).
Or we could say, between the imaginary others (other people) of narcissism and the impenetrable Real Other steps the symbolic Other, gentrifying the chaos.
“In order to render our coexistence with the Thing minimally bearable, the symbolic order qua Third, the pacifying mediator, has to intervene: the “gentrification” of the Other-Thing into a ‘normal human fellow’ cannot occur through our direct interaction, but presupposes the third agency to which we both submit ourselves—there is no intersubjectivity (no symmetrical, shared, relation between humans) without the impersonal symbolic Order.” (143-4)
For Levinas “the Other who addresses me with the unconditional call and thus constitutes me as an ethical subject is—in spite of the fact that this is an absolutely heteronomous call which commands me and so comes from a height—the human other, the face, the transcendental form of the neighbor as radical Other.” 145. Hence Levinas says, “To seeks truth, I have already established a relationship with a face which can guarantee itself, whose epiphany itself is somehow a word of honor. Every language as an exchange of verbal signs refers already to this primordial word of honor…deceit and veracity already presuppose the absolute authenticity of the face” (146, quoted from Totality and Infinity, 202).
This self-referential face of the other is meant to serve as a non-linguistic point of encounter breaking the “vicious circularity of the symbolic order” (146). To encounter the face, for Levinas, is to side step the mediation of the ‘big Other’ of the symbolic order, and engage the neighbor-as-Other. This is meant to circumvent the presencing of “ontology” and “metaphysics” as well as the cultural order.
But for Zizek, via Lacanian psychoanalysis, the human face is already consumed by the symbolic order, it is already engaged as that which gentrifies the “terrifying Thing that is the ultimate reality of our neighbors” (146). The Other qua Real is never revealed in the face of the neighbor, but rather in defacement, when the Real/Unconscious of the Other as Subject breaks through mild manner face; the the inhumanity of the human neighbor is manifest.
The inhuman: the monstrous beyond of the face
“What Levinas fails to include into the scope of ‘human’ is, rather, the inhuman itself, a dimension which eludes the face-to-face relationship of humans” (158). Just as with the undead, which are neither dead nor alive, but rather a monstrous ‘living dead’, so to the inhuman is neither human nor non-human (animal or divine), but “marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity,’ is inherent to being-human.” To illustrate, Zizek turns to reason: for pre-moderns humans were rational beings struggling between merely animal lusts and divine madness. But after Kant, this madness is part of reason itself. In the pre-Kantian universe, when “a hero goes mad, it means he is deprived of his humanity, in other words, the animal passions or divine madness took over, while with Kant, madness signals the unconstrained explosion of the very core of a human being” (160).
Or another example, the difference between animals and humans is not that humans are homeless, deprived of instinctual support, in need of a “second nature”, of symbolic norms and regulations; in short, in need of civilization (the standard anthropological account via Geertz). Rather, the difference which “defines a human being is therefore, not the difference between human and animal (or any other real or imaginary species, such as gods), but an inherent difference, the difference between human and the inhuman excess that is inherent to being-human” (175).
“What Levinas fails to take into account is not some underlying Sameness of all humans but the radical, ‘inhuman’ Otherness itself: the Otherness of a human being reduced to inhumanity” (160).
So what is Levinas’ main failing? It is not trying to circumvent the symbolic order, the ‘big Other,’ through postulating an encounter with the human face as a window toward the transcendent, but by forgetting that there is another Third party, not of the symbolic order, but of the very inhumanity within us, the monstrous Other of which the face of my neighbor covers over. As Zizek says, “Far from displaying ‘a quality of God’s image carried with it,’ the face is the ultimate ethical lure…the neighbor is not displayed through a face; it is, as we have seen, in his or her fundamental dimension a faceless monster” (185)
So the ethical gesture par excellence is not merely suspending the symbolic order and embracing the human face of the Other, but rather to both dissolve the symbolic order, which is even hidden in the face, and embracing the thoroughly inhuman monstrosity which is the human neighbor.