Perhaps philosophy today has taken its cue from a world that believes ideas need not be taken seriously. They can be replaced, the policy goes, with stuff like enjoyment, the market, and values. Or else, ideas are simply a subset of those. I myself have argued at times that philosophy might simply be reducible to friendship. In The New Republic, Adam Kirsch has just written a powerful attack on the academy’s embrace of Slavoj Zizek, whom Kirsch makes out to be a dangerous fascist clown in favor of everything the 20th century taught us not to do. The apotheosis of this embrace, in my eyes, was seeing a paper delivered to an evangelical audience at the American Academy of Religion meeting this year (the panel started with a prayer), which excitedly used Zizek as a tool for resurrecting evangelical politics. If a hip, handsome evangelical pastor can love Zizek, anyone can. And by taking the clown for a responsible thinker, have we forgotten that ideas have real, decisive consequences?
Meanwhile, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown mass suicide, I’ve been struggling to know what ideas can do in the face of horror. This, with Jonathan Z. Smith’s insistence at the end of his essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that the whole promise of the human sciences rests on their hope of giving an answer to what happened there in 1978:
For if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them.
In the comments over at Larval Subjects, there is a pretty good start to a reply to Kirsch’s essay.
First, the article fails to mention Zizek’s oft-repeated statements about choosing the “bad alternative” as a way of shifting the very co-ordinates of the debate. In other words, the aim is not to advocate the “bad” position as the review suggests, but rather to shift the terms of the debate and reveal the hidden assumptions that underlie the debate. … Second, nowhere does the review outline Zizek’s arguments against liberal democracy.
What Kirsch does do, though, is show that Zizek is a man at play. While walking the walk of a successful bourgeois philosophy professor, he manages to talk the talk of a violent revolutionary, calling for a return to Leninism and Maoism and the destruction of liberal democracy. Whole traditions like Christianity and Judaism are reducible to nugget-like principles, which make them and their adherents candidates for eradication if necessary. If Kirsch is right, Zizek has forgotten that ideas have serious consequences and thinks, quite nihilistically, that he can toy with them however he wants and however he can attract attention. If Larval Subjects is right, Zizek believes we need to be shaken into a new willingness to take ideas seriously as offering alternatives to the world order. Even if the latter is so, however, how much will Zizek take responsibility for the horror his proposals might create?
I am no Zizek, but the method I am trying to develop in the study of religion has resonance with his. I try to toy with ideas wherever they go, whatever their consequences may be. Though I suspect that creationism is false and possibly dangerous, for instance, in my research I am most interested in uncovering the truth in it. Following J. Gordon Melton, I refuse to label even the most troubling new religious movements as “cults”—and therefore as fundamentally different from mainstream established religions. It is, in this sense, a kind of a-moral method. In the process, I rest my faith on a principle of intellectual nonviolence: seek the truth everywhere and in the end goodness will prevail. Like Zizek, according to the Larval Subjects reading, I want to shake my readers out of their own assumptions and worlds, into the possibility of another.
But, after watching the excellent PBS documentary on Jonestown, I was struck by the feeling that my method had real shortcomings in the face of this event. What can I do but sympathize and explore? My way of taking Rev. Jones’s ideas seriously would be to find the truth and resonance in them, rather than opposing every resemblance to them, wherever it might appear. Do I have to go further? This comes to mind, especially, as I write about Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist who may or may not be guilty of some rather Jones-like crimes.
Does “taking seriously” mean a wagging finger against dangerous ideas or a reckless foray into them?