UT’s Colloquium: Slavoj Zizek on Iranian Tradition, Mulla Sadra, God, and Love
Slavoj Zizek in UT’s colloquium on June 17th, delivering an hour speech talked about Islamic philosophy, especially Mulla Sadra, as well as some political topics like freedom and censorship in the West.
He says: “for me, god is linked with love. Precisely, this love does not mean idealization. But love allows you to think an ordinary person with this extraordinary divine spark in it.” His speech follows.
Slavoj Zizek: I'm very honored for this invitation. Thank you very much. And you, Nadia, are not hidden from me; I also love your work, your reading—it may surprise you—the way you approach the Iranian tradition; more about this a little bit later.
OK; I will try to approach these issues towards the end of my brief intervention. Let me begin by sincerely thanking you. And of course, I follow the work of Nadia Mafouni for very precise reason. It's not just generally that they favor her work. I think what she is doing with her focus on imagination that this, if we focus in a correct way onto this notion, this throws in a new light an extraordinarily productive perspective the way we should read today our philosophical, religious, and so on tradition. So, what do I know about Iran? My selection here will be that of a half educated western intellectual of course. I know some films, not only of Kiarostami, your great Kiarostami, but mostly by him, and what I appreciated in Kiarostami—because some of my friends even met him, Joan Copjec, who is also fascinated by Iranian thought. And they admired his stance. he was of course a little bit critical towards the Iranian regime, had some minor troubles. But he didn't want to simply play the dissident card, move to the west, and so on. He absolutely wanted to remain in that intermediate space which I think was the correct decision. From Iranian past, it's an obvious choice even just before Islam came. Don't you have a thinker theologist Mazdak is now pronounced who is according to some classifications the first socialist or even communist in the history of world philosophy?
I think he was an extraordinary phenomenon and he wasn't afraid to engage himself. He was I think even some kind of an advisor or connected with the king at that point. And then there was a counter-revolution against his orientation. He was publicly killed and so on and so on. Then this will not surprise you. But the one philosopher whom I really relatively know is of course the great Mulla Sadra. He is quite a cult figure in our circles. My American friend Joan Copjec started to learn Iranian, the language, because of him. Because in her extraordinary experience she was a movie theorist she began with Kiarostami.
And then with her focus on what happens in Kiarostami’s films with images, the role of image, imagination, and so on, she simply moved her interest onto Mulla Sadra and I think that he, Mulla Sadra, is very important. No longer books are written on him even in French especially because he does something which is I think quite extraordinary.
Now, I'm not going into details of course. But what fascinates me is that he is a monotheist formally like one god, the one; but he demonstrates precisely by evoking all those shadows, virtual traditions, imagination, and so on that the one is always at the same time less and more than the one.
In this sense, he demonstrates that monotheism can be more open and fragile than polytheism. In polytheism this inner tension of the one gets dissipated. You know, you have this feature, that feature, like in Scandinavian Viking religious space. You have Odin for this, you have Freyja for love, you have Thor for natural force, whatever the tension is lost. So, I think if you should think inconsistency and all that inner tensions, you need correct monotheism.
Here now I come with what the work of Nadia Maftouni means to me. Maybe this is a little bit of a wild reading but I will brutally close my view.
In her dealings of imagination, she goes and she demonstrates that already ancient Islamic philosophy went this way; namely she goes beyond Aristotle.
Aristotle has a theory of imagination. And if we take away some subversive things it's a pretty traditional theory of imagination. My main point is this one. We in the West we usually reduce imagination to something subjective as opposed to objective reality. Things are out there, they are what they are in their identity, maybe this identity is not fully known to us but it exists out there. And then imagination is subjective. We project something on the objects, we fill in the gaps in our knowledge and so on and so on.
But I think what we learn from the tradition which is close to me from German idealism, Hegel and others of course in the 20th century, up to—if I may engage in this wild speculation—up to philosophical implications of quantum physics is that objectively also things are not simply what they are. What a thing is imminently implies the space of some kind of I would even call it ontological imagination—imagination in the thing itself—what this thing might have been but didn't become what is a secret potential in the thing. So, to understand a thing means not only forget about your mind focus just on what that thing really is. Now, to understand a thing means to include into its identity all these potentialities.
The clearest example of this is of course the domain of ethics. Let's say you were supposed to do something in a very tense social political situation, your duty, and you knew it, was to do this. But you were too scared, you failed, you didn't do it. And this not doing it can be a stain which defines marks your entire life. You remain slot for others. Then in your own conscience you remain the man who failed to do that, what you should have do it; a step further here I want to do is that for me again the ontological vision beneath this is what I try to develop as an ontologically incomplete reality. Reality is not full. There are gaps, inconsistencies, unused opportunities, potentialities in reality. And it's not just our mind that project this onto reality. This opening is in the reality itself. It's a pretty paradoxical view but I think the only consequent view imposed even by the modern science.
Now, I come to my crucial point about cultural—not only cultural exchange or interchange—I think that if we approach our exchanges or generally exchanges between different cultures in this way then we should abandon this boring identitarian view which tells us that “okay; you have your culture, I have my own culture, we can just try; we cannot ever really understand each other; so as if we are separated islands and we can try to understand each other but we always fail.”
No, the first thing to add, it's a crazy, this is that the problem is not if I understand you; the problem is that I probably or and for sure already don't really understand myself. And the contact I'm in my identity always traversed inconsistent, inconsequential, and so on and so on so that the contact and exchange with other or others persons cultures at the global level can make me understand better than I understand myself. Because, as I said as a general thesis, every specific culture is ontologically open. For example—and then I will apply this also to relations with Iran—for example, my standard example, I'm sorry if it's a little bit boring; Shakespeare: it’s a false question to ask can we understand what Shakespeare really meant in the figure of Hamlet. In some sense, I claim he himself didn't know it. There are in Shakespeare some features, characteristics which obviously he as a great writer just put down without being aware of all the implications, presuppositions, and so on and so on.
So, I claim it's not that since we don't know the historical context, we cannot really know what Shakespeare meant. No; Shakespeare didn't know it. And later interpretations are like new perspectives but not simply external to Shakespeare, new perspectives which bring out what was only late and virtual in Shakespeare.
And this is my hope for international intellectual exchanges. For example, going back to Shakespeare—I don't know how you deal with Shakespeare in Iran. But I was very glad to learn of two great writers. I don't like the other one; he is too spiritual in a fake way for me—but Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. It's undoubtedly, all real movie lovers know this, that the best version of Hamlet for me is the one shot, I think, in early 60s by Kurosawa in Japan.
It's a Hamlet set in modern Japan. A student who is a son of a rich industrialist comes back from his studies in America and discovers that his father was killed. So, it's different time, different culture, but you see their dimensions, the dramatic core of Hamlet; all its ambiguities much more clearly than in Shakespeare himself. For example, it's clear to every attentive reader that the true bad guy in Shakespeare is not Claudius who killed the king but the king himself. He must have been an evil game. Okay, I will not lose time here. The same surprise, you know, that also Kurosawa or Richard Guthrie did in 47, 8, or 9 the best version of Dostoyevsky's Idiot that I know, set in contemporary Japan.
Idiot is the soldier who returns to his home from the war broken down and so on and so on. So you see my point; we shouldn't say okay we have Shakespeare's Hamlet and we have what the Japanese did with Hamlet. No; it's all intertwined interconnected. Walter Benjamin whom I hope you know said somewhere that some works of art and I would add even philosophy are like thoughts of a film in a traditional real cinematic track for which only a later generation invents a developer so that you can see the precise image that you shot.
I think it's like this. For example, Shakespeare became Shakespeare, I claim, maybe even after romanticism, only in the 19th century, unique time from distance. It's true that sometimes distance is an obstacle. You don't understand what is a certain civilization. But maybe you can understand it even better.
And this is, I think, our situation today. It's not that out of some politically correct desire to understand the other, that I'm interested in Iranian philosophy, Indian, Chinese philosophy, and so on. It's to understand myself only through another size. Can I see what is hidden in myself?
And this process is always mutual in the sense that it goes for all parties. Reality is incomplete. And if we use here the notion of god, divinity, for me, god is not actually the ultimate guarantee of identity. God is precisely one of the names of this openness. The divine dimension is there when you read a classical text of art in a certain traditional way and then you discover another virtual dimension.
In our ordinary experience, here the divine dimension enters. In this sense, for me, god is linked with love. Precisely, this love does not mean idealization. The object beloved, man, woman, remains the same. But love allows you to think an ordinary person with this extraordinary divine spark in it.
What does this mean? Now, finally I'm coming to your question censorship and so on. I would have said that it's our duty as intellectuals to be always attentive. Always that is to say always when a certain view is presented to us as the final solution, like this is it, this is what we are trying to grasp; this is what we have to strive for.
Always ask yourself: but what are the potential problems, contradictions, dangers, even in that ideal that we are striving for. For example, some of the Western critics of Iran, even sympathetic critics, claim that we have a simple measure of how democratic and free a country is and that what they wish for Iran is simply what Jurgen Habermas demanded of East Germany after German reunification.
His notion is the nochholen, a catch-up revolution, like to put it bluntly in Western Europe and United States. We already have the best possible—in these circumstances—socio-political system. And the only way for you in Iran is maybe slowly in one way or another to catch up with us.
Maybe I'm doing him an injustice but in an interview Richard Rorty, the pragmatic philosopher who otherwise was not an idiot, he predicted 20 years ago a thinker like Trump. But this was, I think if I'm not wrongly informed, his advice to you Iranians. Let's try to get our Western democracy. I think that okay I will not teach you and I will not tell you. You should tell me how do you need to find against the censorship you have and so on. But what I want to warn you is that what we are witnessing now and here, we in the developed West, need your maybe not help but your insight.
Isn't it clear in the last decade or two that in the West which always praised itself as a beacon of democracy something is happening which is no longer just the protest against local forms of oppression, like we are not truly in a democracy in the usual parliamentarian sense and so on, but a more radical protest which casts a doubt upon the very model of western liberal democracy?
What I mean by this? look at yellow vests in France this was precisely a massive protest against the form of democracy that they have in France; the representative parliamentary democracy. The shock of this protest was there: the demands of the people.
I don't agree even with them but the point is it was not possible to translate them into the form of political parties, political representation.
So, while you should, maybe—it's not for me to tell you—strive for the fuller measure of some freedoms that we have in the West at the same time bear in mind that the West itself is in a deep deep crisis now. What is happening is what? Every society relies as we know not only on its explicit constitution legal regulations but on what always fascinates me incredibly: the set of silent unwritten rules. We never have judged the loss. We have unwritten customs, manners which tell us how to apply these rules. Quite often there is a contradiction here. Those who know my words know that I am quite obsessed by this phenomenon; how the hegemonic ruling discourse often prohibits something but you are discreetly solicited to violate this prohibition. That's how sexual prohibitions mostly work.
At the same time, we have a much more interesting opposite paradox. Something is allowed; you are even solicited to do it. So, you're given a free choice but on condition that you make the right choice. You know, like you have freedom to vote but only if you vote for the right guy.
All these paradoxes are exploding today and for example United States it's now at the edge of an ideological civil war. You have two camps whose language is getting so different that I don't see any possibility of a synthesis like Trumpians and democrats will come together invent one America. No; because the conflict is precisely in what this one America will be. So again, when you fight for your freedoms, please always be aware that there is no clear established model of what to follow.
Now, you mentioned these forms of censorship and so on and so on. And it's good that you mentioned also digital control, new forms of unfreedom in the West. Because from my own experience I think that I almost have a half nostalgic memory of the time when Yugoslavia was a socialist country because then the censorship rules were clear and it was even easy to violate them. The example you mentioned, 300 Greeks who were Persians, all that confusion; well, probably since you Iranians translate many books, read a lot, since you are not idiots, probably, probably this was even a big propaganda for the film. You know, people were telling to each other these jokes. This was an example of counterproductive censorship.
But the censorship we are getting today more and more in the West it's much more dangerous because of technological control—all the mechanisms of safe recognition, face recognition and so on—because of technological control and at the same time the exchange of data between big corporations like Facebook, Google, and so on and state security agencies.
The control is very strong; they are almost approaching the state of directly controlling our mind. For example, I learned just now when you buy on Amazon a book on Kindle, you know that Amazon gets the data not only which books you bought but through that reading machine with what intensity how much of the book did you read, which chapters, and so on and so on. The same with the modern TV set that you get.
So, one of the lessons in the West is that maybe the most dangerous kind of unfreedom is the unfreedom which you individually experience as the very form of your freedom. Take an average American. You are free, you go out to eat, you buy what you want, you chat with friends, and so on. You do what you want but you are totally controlled and in subtle ways regulated.
In censorship, in direct censorship, there is at least a space for metaphoric and other ways to subvert the censorship rules. Here you are not even aware what the prohibitions are usually. So, there is not even a way to subvert it.
It's a much harsher closure. So, just be aware of this. This is what from your perspective, your fight for freedom should be. Yes, we want more political freedom of the press; but look carefully at what happens in the West and beware that in the West we also have our own forms of control.
For example; I will be critical. Not too much of Iran probably with you, if you want to get a big university post you have to be approved by some … I don't know what body. But we now learn that in United Kingdom, England, the beacon of liberty, you know that discreetly MI5 or 6—I don't know which of the two is for domestic dangers—is doing exactly the same; every university post, all trade union posts, and so on. Student organizations are all closely discreetly controlled. You are not even aware of it but it works.
And back to philosophy to conclude; my big fear here is the next step I've written a book about it. It's of course still not realized but it's coming close to it; what I called a wired brain: the direct link between our brain, at least the main lines of the thoughts in my brain and an external machine so that a machine will be able to communicate directly with my brain and of course then those who control the machine will be able to get access to my brain.
Now, I don't think that this will totally deprive us of our freedom. But just be a good Hegelian. By Hegel, the great philosopher, I mean that—Hegel was almost the opposite of Marx and I tend to move towards Hegel today —his idea was not even when there is a catastrophe look for the good side of it, like out of every catastrophe something good can come.
No, Hegel’s point was more; when you triumph and succeed look at the new dangers. Hegel was always fascinated by how like, I don't know, French Revolution began as universal freedom you get revolutionary terror. But that's not even a good example. I have sympathies for Rob Spiers. I would have said look at the October Revolution; undoubtedly at the beginning emancipatory event, then in 15, 20 years you get Stalinism and so on.
So, philosophy I think today—I doubt if it can give you big new answers. But the main task of a philosopher today is to raise the right questions and to make you attentive to the potential dark sides of even big emancipatory events.
So, with all this whatever we call them—populist revolutions—I'm not saying we should not fight for freedom. I'm just saying be very careful. Freedom is such a fragile thing; it can always turn into its opposite imminently following its own inner logic.
And the second thing; here you being neither East nor the West but in the middle, here between far East and West, you Iranians should be aware of this everyday experience that Americans I think, I’m not fully aware of—we need some substantial what Hegel called Sitten, categories of not individual ethics but public common customs mostly unwritten rules to be actually free.
Look, to think freely you need … we think in language. You have to obey the rules of language fluently to be free socially. It means I go out, I chat with friends, I do what I do, but this means that I should rely on a set of rules. When I walk on the street I will not be simply killed by somebody. People will obey certain manners and so on and so on.
Freedom is not abstract. Freedom is always a freedom in a social context and for that we should fight, not for freedom as such. You always have the freedom to kill yourself or whatever. But we should fight for the social network of rules within which our freedom can only thrive.
And here again nobody has a privilege. We in the West can learn from you. For example, it was Christian Jambet who wrote a nice book 20, 30 years ago on Mulla Sadra in French. You know what interests me in his reading? that he didn't do it in this patronizing way: “Oh, let's see how intelligent Iranians are. Did they already have some insights today?”
No, he did it because before that, he was a Maoist politically this strict revolutionary logic. And then his Maoist view got in a deadlock. So, you see he went to Mulla Sadra to resolve the unbearable deadlock of his own situation. It's to get out of the trouble. I mean that I go out to you. That's, I think, the only way to be truly respectful in intercultural communications, not this patronizing respect: “Oh look you are not stupid! You already see!”
No; you enable me to see myself. You help me to get out.
At this base, I must say, Iran is today with all its unfreedoms and so on, but at the same time—I'm aware of it—with an incredible intellectual life. Iran is one of the countries which most interests me today. It's maybe—who knows—the ways of the god are improvisable. But it's maybe one of the places where something new effectively may happen.
So, it's my honor to be here and to talk to you. Thank you very much for your patience.