Žižek on “Forced Choice”

Slavoj Žižek is an interesting philosopher, combining very eclectic interests in Hegel, Marx, the psychoanalyst Lacan, and (surprisingly enough) Christian theology. In the following excerpt, he is explaining the “real” status of freedom—“real” in the sense Lacan uses it, where the thing itself is not real, it does not exist, but it nevertheless has various effects on the world. To use a controversial example, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were precisely “real”: though they did not exist, they presented symbolic justification of a war in the Middle East. For Žižek, modern freedom has this same “real-impossible” status:

A few months ago, a Yugoslav student was called to regular military service. In Yugoslavia, at the beginning of military service, there is a certain ritual: every new soldier must solemnly swear that he is willing to serve his country and to defend it even if it means losing his life, and so on—the usual patriotic stuff. After the public ceremony, everybody must sign the solemn document. The young soldier simply refused to sign, saying that an oath depends upon free choice, that it is a matter of free decision, and he, from his free choice, did not want to give his signature tot he oath. But, he was quick to add, if any of the officers present was prepared to give him a formal order to sign the oath, he would of course be prepared to do so. The perplexed officers explained to him that because the oath depended upon his free decision (an oath obtained by force is valueless), they could not give him such an order, but that, on the other hand, if he still refused to give his signature, he would be prosecuted for refusing to do his duty and condemned to prison. . .

In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choix forcé—at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing; you have, for example, the freedom to choose to sign or not to sign the oath, on condition that you choose rightly—that is, to sign it. If you make the wrong choice, you lose freedom of choice itself. And it is by no means accidental that this paradox arises at the level of the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs: the situation of the forced choice consists in the fact that the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice—he must choose what is already given to him. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 185-6)

What strikes me is exactly the way this analysis confirms the Christian (especially Pauline/Augustinian) understanding of the nature of free will: when one chooses the good (and only the good), then one is truly free! But when one chooses evil, out of a free choice between good and evil, then one becomes bound to the evil and loses “freedom of choice itself.” It is a matter, then, of freely choosing the good set before us, already given us by God and in this way becoming part of the free community (the Church). But God does, paradoxically, command us to choose this freedom: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deut. 30:19). “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). To continue to freely choose evil is actually to elect out of the community. For this reason, the logic of excommunication enunciated by Hauerwas is exactly right: “Excommunication is not to throw someone out of the church, but rather an attempt to help them see that they have become a stumbling block and are, therefore, already out of the church. Excommunication is a call to come home. . .” (Matthew, 165).

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