Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some thoughts on Beautiful Soul Syndrome

I'm working on a paper about vegetarian vampires, and I am engaging with what Tim Morton calls Beautiful Soul Syndrome (following, of course, Hegel). So, some of you have seen some of my arguments here before about how vegans and vegetarians are constantly being accused of suffering from beautiful soul syndrome (not, obviously, in those words), and that for the most part the accusation is bunk. But, I begin to think more about the critique of beautiful soul syndrome, and I realized there is a real threat in the critique as well. Let's detour quickly through Harman on Zizek, and then we will get back to animals.

Recently Harman commented on the absurd comments by Zizek on the Roma. Specifically, Harman wrote that:
However, some (though not Lenin’s Tomb) have suggested that Žižek is simply trying to be a contrarian. I don’t think so at all. I think there’s a fairly sturdy common thread running through all his most controversial political statements (both this one and some of his more controversial statements at the leftmost end of the spectrum), and that is his hatred of “the beautiful soul.” What Žižek despises more than anything else (and this is to his credit) is the assumption of cost-free moral superiority, even when it comes from the Left. He is deeply attracted to those who are willing to pay the price for their views, and that’s why we find him praising Stalin’s forced collectivization and, in the remarks now at hand, apparently praising locals who “fear” the Roma over distant city dwellers making bourgeois multicultural remarks for the Roma against the locals, and so forth.
I hate the defense of Stalin and shudder at any opening of inquests against the Roma, but what I do always respect about Žižek’s remarks on politics is that they’re never actually clownish at all.
Right, so there is something right on at that. And I agree, that being a beautiful soul is really problematic, especially from a political and ethical standpoint (also consider this a beginning of an answer to this question over at AUFS). However, being critical of being a beautiful soul is often what someone does right before they, you know, say or do something horribly violent and messed up. Zizek's frankly racist remarks about the Roma is a good example. But this also happens all the time in discussions of vegans and vegetarians. When someone critiques vegans and vegetarians of engaging in beautiful soul syndrome, of just desiring to be pure (like Pollan often does), they almost always are saying their willingness to accept the world as a violent place means they can now slaughter and eat the flesh of animals.

In other words, we cannot have a critique of the beautiful soul leading us into a worse world. This sort of political and ethical 'realism' cannot be an excuse for racism and needless violence. Deleuze was often fond of saying that doing philosophy required a sort of stutter or a sort of stammer. A way of making language do something it wasn't really designed to do. I often think that political and ethical action requires a type of shambling, a type of shuffling. A way of walking that both rejects the beautiful soul while at the same time not allowing that to become an excuse for us to not have ethical commitments.