Wednesday, 11 April 2007

The Parallax Gap between Agapē and Altruism

We’re all victims of the last book we read. I, for one, am plugging my way through Zizek’s Parallax Gap at the moment and am interested in his idea of the parallax in perspective, situation and function for a thing. In some ways, it’s similar to the idea of Danto’s method of indiscernibles. For Danto, something like Warhol’s Brillo cartons is indiscernible from the cartons actually used to store and ship Brillo pads. Despite the differences of material (cardboard is replaced by wood, mass printing is replaced by hand-printing) the box is still fundamentally the same box. It looks the same and without prior knowledge of the construction technique, the casual observer will find the difference between the two indiscernible.

Zizek tries something similar from the other side. That is, an thing is just a thing in all circumstances, but the thing is quite a different thing when located in different contexts. The breast, in one context, is the mechanism for feeding an infant, but in another context it is an object of sexual desire. The thing has not changed, but it is nonetheless plastic as a consequence of circumstance, location and perspective.

Apply this now to a single act of kindness. To the casual observer, this act is identical if performed by a secular humanist as it would be by a nun. However, the secular humanist will be thinking of the greater good for humanity, the responsibility of one sentient to another and even perhaps considering this to be an altruistic act, given that it might occur with some measure of personal sacrifice. For the nun, the thoughts are likely to be centred around the divine, the co-location of the needy person with Christ and considering this an act of agapē, the act of unconditional love.

The two acts appear indiscernible, but are nonetheless different. One is most certainly divine, but the other is not. And yet, the effect is the same. If, halfway through the act, the nun reconsidered her faith and became a secular humanist, did God cease to exist there and then, being forced to exist in some other act? Yes. And likewise, should the secular humanist find faith in the middle of the act, does God emerge into existence in that act? Yes.

Subtly, God is the difference between agapē and altruism. God’s existence in this world depends entirely on it.
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