What Would Žižek Do? Redeeming Christianity's Perverse Core
What Would Žižek Do? Redeeming Christianity's Perverse Core
Jokes play a fundamental role in Slavoj Žižek’s philosophizing. Is Žižek joking when he extols the virtues of Christianity to the Left? Eric Dean Rasmussen analyzes Žižek’s pro-Christian proselytizing as attacks on modes of PC-ness - political correctness and perverse Christianity - that sustain an undesirable neoliberalism.
In three recent books - The Fragile Absolute, On Belief, and The Puppet and the Dwarf - Slavoj Žižek calls on the Left to reclaim the Christian legacy from the religious Right. Read collectively, this series (each title published by three different scholarly presses) provides a sustained attack on two pervasive modes of ‘PC-ness’ - political correctness and perverse Christianity - that help perpetuate the current neoliberal consensus regarding the inevitability, and perhaps the desirability, of global socioconomic inequality. Focusing primarily on The Puppet and the Dwarf, the last and most substantive of the triptych, my reading focuses on four aspects of Žižek’s typically circuitous argument regarding Christianity’s potential as a progressive liberating force. In what follows I explain Žižek’s animosity towards postmodern spirituality, consider how Žižek’s pro-Christian stance differs from Right-wing positions, examine Walter Benjamin’s influence on Žižek’s historical materialism, and make explicit the ethical distinction between Christianity’s “perverse core” and its “subversive kernel.”
Slavoj Žižek’s subtitle - “The Perverse Core of Christianity” - seems to promise an account of all that is corrupt in the Christian faith. Readers aware of Žižek’s reputation as a leading Leftist theorist but unfamiliar with the Slovenian philosopher’s thinking might open The Puppet and the Dwarf expecting a neo-Nietzschean or post-Marxist critique of Christianity. But Žižek doesn’t censure Christians for subscribing to a ‘slave morality’ or becoming addicted to an ‘opiate for the masses.’ Instead, it’s liberals, especially Western intellectuals with disavowed spiritual tendencies, whom Žižek targets for rebuke. Their misguided ethical convictions and corresponding lack of political gumption have facilitated the spread of a global corporatism that benefits a relatively small economic elite at the expense of the world’s oppressed masses. With the need to combat this exploitative New World Order informing his philosophizing, Žižek prescribes a dose of Christianity to an anemic and largely impotent Left he diagnoses as suffering from a debilitating malady - postmodern ethical relativism.
Ethical relativism (a term Žižek doesn’t use, but which concisely encapsulates a number of his targets) refers to several related concepts: the idea that all truth claims are contingent - social constructions valid only for members of particular cultures; the rejection of universal truth claims on the ground that asserting a universal truth entails denying, and thus disrespecting, the validity of another’s culture and identity; and the tendency to disavow one’s sincerely and “directly assumed belief[s]” (The Puppet and the Dwarf 7) for fear of offending others or of appearing politically incorrect. Quickly, Žižek’s arguments against these notions are as follows: First, it makes no sense to speak of a relative truth that doesn’t apply universally. For a claim to be considered true, it must, by definition, be presumed to be universally valid for everyone. If others reject the validity of a claim that I believe to be true, that’s because they are mistaken, not because they hold a different subject position or come from a different culture. Second, talk of respecting difference or otherness fetishizes empty abstractions and is effectively meaningless, mere grandstanding rhetoric. In practice, respecting another’s belief or practice requires us to take it seriously enough to judge whether it is true or false, right or wrong.
These first two points, while valid, do not constitute a particularly novel intellectual intervention; Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels (neopragmatists whose theory-has-no-consequences position otherwise clashes with Žižek’s deeply philosophical project: “to reactualize German Idealism”) have been making similar arguments about the limits of liberal principles for over a decade. However, Žižek does contribute something new to Anglo-American debates about the status of belief in postmodern societies with his account of disavowed belief, which begins with a simple premise: “today, we believe more than ever” (6). The catch is that contemporary believers are confused and fail to recognize the extent or the nature of their beliefs, particularly when it comes to “religious matters” (5). Thus, to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s oft-cited formula of cynical reason - “I know what I am doing; nonetheless, I am doing it … ” - Žižek adds a final clause: ” … because I don’t know what I believe” (5).
Our confusion regarding what we believe is understandable given that establishing what belief entails is no straightforward project. What, exactly, does it mean to say that I believe in something? Such a question implies a uniquely modern concept of subjective belief that Žižek finds insufficient: “The direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (‘Here I stand!’) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through distance, like politeness or rituals” (6). The modern notion of belief as subjective inner conviction fails to take into account the intersubjective nature of belief. Belief, Žižek insists, entails believing that others also believe. This is especially true of religious beliefs, which cannot be empirically proven. Such beliefs are materialized in practices, such as rituals and ceremonies, external to us. We perform them for the benefit of what Jacques Lacan dubbed a ‘subject supposed to believe.’
A failure to comprehend how belief externalizes itself in material practices led “Enlightenment critics [to] misread ‘primitive’ myths” (6). By imposing their model of “literal direct belief” on people from tribal cultures, these critics regarded the myths as simply ignorant or naïve (6). Here, Žižek might seem to be making a basic relativist point: that we cannot judge adequately another culture’s beliefs from our perspective. But this is not Žižek’s point at all. If, on the one hand, Žižek rejects the subjective notion of direct belief because it exaggerates the subject’s autonomy and fails to account for the way we stage our beliefs, he is, on the other hand, even more dismissive of the relativist claim that we cannot judge beliefs held by people from other cultures. Postmodern relativists, Žižek would have us see, remain committed to a modern concept of direct belief; they are just in denial about their commitment or timidly try to avoid asserting their beliefs directly.
Žižek, it’s worth noting, frequently uses postmodern as a term of abuse. When he does so, typically, it’s to signal his opposition to the postmodernists’ tendency to place their directly held beliefs at a remove. And who might these postmodernists be? Žižek’s examples include: Deconstructionists whose skepticism requires the positing of “an Other who ‘really believes’ ”; ironists who incessantly place their remarks within scare quotes and (borrowing from Umberto Eco) self-conscious lovers who say things like, “As the poets would have put it, I love you” (6). Such phenomena, which Žižek treats as symptoms of disavowed, displaced, or suspended belief, are a major target of Žižek’s analysis in The Puppet and the Dwarf. One of Žižek’s signature critical moves is to make explicit the underlying presuppositions, the disavowed beliefs, and the obscene fantasies that secretly support our consciously held positions and intentional acts. Although the aforementioned postmodernists pride themselves on being self-reflexive, Žižek pinpoints their blind spot: an anti-foundationalism that resists positing a conceptual totality on the grounds that such thinking risks becoming totalitarian. As a result of their principled anti-foundationalism (which functions as a kind of disavowed foundationalism or, for more canny thinkers, foundationalism under erasure) the postmodernists neglect to take into account the consequences of their epistemological skepticism and self-conscious irony. One particularly detrimental consequence is the general undermining of truth claims in an intellectual climate in which directly asserted beliefs are too readily judged as equivalent forms of dogmatism.
As a psychoanalyst, Žižek believes that our ideas about belief tend to be based on a vision of the human psyche that is too limited. Žižek aspires to discern our unconscious beliefs, which he has usefully defined as “the things we do not know that we know” (Iraq 9). Doing so, of course, is tricky, because we’re unaware that we adhere to these beliefs. Nonetheless, Žižek insists that we can identify the signs, or symptoms, of our unconsciously held beliefs as they manifest themselves materially in our cultural practices and artifacts. For Žižek, any rigorous theory of belief must take into account unconscious beliefs, which are, of course, unknown to the subject holding them. While people may profess their disbelief in a particular ideology, they behave ‘as if’ they actually believe in its authority. By analyzing people’s behavior as manifested in various cultural phenomena, Žižek aims to identify their unconsciously held beliefs and the desires that motivate them. In The Puppet and the Dwarf, he is especially interested in varieties of religious belief.
Discerning widespread ambivalence about people who profess to be true religious believers (are they to be commended for their sincerity or condemned as extremists?), Žižek redefines (postmodern) culture as the practices that follow from our nonserious, ironic, or disavowed beliefs:
When it comes to religion … we no longer “really believe” today, we just follow (some) religious rituals and mores as part of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong (nonbelieving Jews obeying kosher rules ‘out of respect for tradition,’ etc.). “I don’t really believe in it, it’s just part of my culture” effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times. What is a cultural lifestyle, if not the fact that, although we don’t believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house, and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, the “nonfundamentalist “notion of “culture” as distinguished from “real” religion, art, and so on, is in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal beliefs - ‘culture’ is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without ‘taking them seriously’ (7).
Culture, thus defined, refers to the domain of ideas we espouse, things we do, and projects in which we partake but from which we strive to maintain a sophisticated distance. This culturalization of belief - the transformation of our beliefs into cultural lifestyles - has dire ideological consequences. It depoliticizes us, as we are conditioned to tolerate or respect other lifestyles rather than to disagree and debate with others who hold beliefs that we consider to be mistaken. As a result, most contemporary forms of spirituality are complicit with the exploitative socioeconomic status quo. With this premise in the background, Žižek continues his relentless critique of varieties of postmodern skepticism, his critical gaze focused (much of the time) on contemporary religious formations, which he reveals as sites of disavowed belief that feed into political cynicism and apathy. Žižek identifies various contemporary “religious formations” - ranging from Western Buddhism to New Age paganism to deconstructionist-Levinasian Judaism - whose adherents subscribe to modes of disavowed belief that cannot be publicly acknowledged and must remain a “private obscene secret” (6).
Žižek resists these religious formations on the grounds that, despite appearances to the contrary, they function as ideological handmaidens to global capitalism. His aim, however, is not to expose the followers of these faiths as hypocrites whose spiritual values have been too easily trumped by their material interests. “[A]uthentic philosophers,” Žižek suggests, are not interested in analyzing “the hypocrisy of the dominant system,” which is widespread and easily identifiable; “what surprises them is the exact opposite - not that people do not ‘really believe,’ and act upon their professed principles, but that people who profess their cynical distance and radical pragmatic opportunism secretly believe more than they are willing to admit, even if they transpose these beliefs onto (nonexistent) ‘others’ ” (8). Therefore, when Žižek describes modes of disavowed belief, he does not call for a return to more authentic forms of these faiths in place of their superficial, postmodern forms. Rather, he rejects all varieties of these faiths outright on the grounds that their inherent logic promotes political complacency. How so? By embracing an ontology of the integral One, followers of these faiths become inured to systemic socio-economic inequality and are permitted to partake in exploitative market practices with a clear conscience. Stated vulgarly, Žižek rejects these faiths because their underlying ontology enables, and even encourages, their adherents to accommodate themselves to the dictates of the market and to function as ruthless capitalists or, more commonly, docile laborers.
These faiths share two key features - a vision of the universe as a harmonious whole and an ethos that regards all efforts to introduce a split into this universe as being misguided and deluded, if not evil - with debilitating “political implications” (23). New Age paganism, for example, posits the universe as a primal abyss in which all apparent opposites ultimately coincide, while Buddhism “fully assumes the Void as the only true Good” and teaches its practitioners to remain indifferent to phenomenal reality, the “wheel of illusion” (23). And, with deconstructionist-Levinasian Judaism - which Žižek suggests “has become almost the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today’s intellectuals” (8) - “the assertion of Otherness leads to the boring, monotonous sameness of Otherness itself” (24). In other words, when we construe otherness as an unknowable alterity all particular instances of the other become variations of the same, a same that is beyond our comprehension and which we cannot judge. Thus, despite what those who organize under the banner of multiculturalism think, the ethical call to remain open to a radical Otherness encourages passivity in our encounters with others that ultimately translates into political apathy or inaction.
Žižek also argues that multiculturalist calls to respect difference often disguise a disavowed, reactionary impulse - the desire to keep the other at a distance. In other words, one way of respecting the other is via segregation, which ensures that your beliefs, practices, and bodies don’t come into contact. But Žižek’s core argument against the liberal multiculturalists’ agenda is that it has yielded divisive identity politics that have turned Leftists away from what should be their primary concern, organizing and working for economic equality and an end to poverty. Unlike the egalitarian demand to redistribute wealth and material resources more evenly, it costs the ruling class nothing to respect difference and promote diversity. That’s why multinational corporations notorious for their exploitative labor practices have been quick to adopt the multiculturalist platform.
In short, the aforementioned faiths, and their political offshoot, multiculturalism, encourage adherents to tolerate the socioeconomic status quo and are complicit with political conservatism and the material inequalities its policies regard as inevitable and necessary. For this reason, the Left must purge itself of the ethos that these faiths share - an ethic of alterity or otherness. Žižek attributes much of the contemporary Left’s problems to a misguided commitment to otherness, which has resulted in a fractured political agenda, based primarily on vague identitarian appeals to respect and tolerate cultural difference. Identity politics fails to examine the problem of inequality from within a properly totalizing framework. Consequently, identity politics fails to recognize, let alone address, the systemic exploitation that is required for capitalism to function. Therefore, the Left should concern itself with combating the antagonism at the core of the various localized forms of inequality - global capitalism. As Žižek sees it, too many Leftists have become complacent liberals who are secretly satisfied with the existing socioeconomic order and the economic relations between people that it presupposes - at least that’s what all their multiculturalist rhetoric about celebrating diversity and respecting “otherness” ultimately implies.
The Left must understand that its ultimate commitment is not to liberal tolerance or “all-encompassing Compassion” (32) but to eliminating material inequality. Radical changes in the social order are needed, and a crucial starting point is to denaturalize the existing capitalist order, to make people aware that market forces are not omnipotent. But consciousness raising alone will not suffice. What’s needed is a willingness to introduce a “radical imbalance into the social edifice” (95). Žižek’s wager is that “Christian love” - defined as “a violent passion to introduce a Difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object at the expense of others” (33) - can be a catalyst that will provoke the Left to resume collectively its emancipatory struggle.
Regarding Religion: Does Žižek Repeat the Christian Right?
Given the Christian Right’s prominence in the United States today, it’s worth raising a couple basic questions. First, does Žižek’s account of the “framework of suspended belief” and the three ‘postsecular’ religious options that it permits accurately describe the contemporary American sociopolitical reality? According to Cornel West - another popular philosopher, public intellectual, and dynamic orator who deplores the state of contemporary liberalism and argues that the Left must reclaim the Christian legacy - surveys suggest that “80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, 72 percent expect the Second Coming of Christ, and 40 percent say they speak to the Christian God on intimate terms at least twice a week” (West 147). Might Žižek be overstating the extent of Western postsecularism and its depoliticizing influence?
Consider the current U.S. political scene. George W. Bush governs as the most openly religious president in American history, and Bush’s unabashed invocations of Jesus Christ, with whom he professes to have a personal relationship, garnered him roughly seventy percent of the evangelical Christian vote in 2000 and probably more in the 2004 election. During the 2004 election season Republicans successfully played the religion card to mobilize their evangelical Christian base. Tactics included everything from dropping “evangelical code words” (Stam) in stump speeches to signal Bush’s rejection of social policies (upholding Roe v. Wade, defending civil and economic rights for homosexuals) supported by many moderate conservatives, to mass mailing pamphlets warning that, if elected, Democrats would ban the Bible. However deplorable many of these tactics were, the political arrogance they expressed was not unexpected. Although approximately 500,000 more votes were cast for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 attacks provided Bush with political cover and political capital, and the Bush-Cheney administration ruled during its first term as though it had a sweeping mandate from the entire American public. Consequently, the religious Right’s agenda assumed center stage in American politics and political commentators began to refer to the influence of America’s Evangelical Christians as the Jesus Factor.
Witness, for example, Bush’s faith-based initiatives to turn a range of social services over to private religious groups (federal funds have gone almost exclusively to Christian or ‘multidenominational’ groups), the growing assault on women’s reproductive rights, calls to teach creationism as the theory of ‘intelligent design’ in science classrooms, and, most significantly, the wars the U.S. is waging in two predominantly Muslim nations, Iraq and Afghanistan. These Middle Eastern wars threaten to escalate into a full-blown holy war. Islamic radicals have already declared a jihad against the United States, talk of a clash of civilizations abounds, and rumors persist that neoconservatives in the Pentagon have plans for effecting regime changes in Iran and Syria. Although Americans’ support for the Iraq War has diminished, many evangelical Christians, including President Bush, appear to regard a global holy war as inevitable and perhaps even welcome such a conflagration.
Second, given all the aforementioned indicators that American politics and policy continues to move further rightward, and given that the so-called “Jesus Factor” is providing much of the impetus for this shift, how should we respond to Žižek’s insistence that the Left must reclaim and redeem the Christian legacy? And what are we to make of Žižek’s appeals to “Christian intolerant, violent love” (32-3)? Is this sort of Christian love what’s needed? Such language sounds disturbingly like the rhetoric of the far Right, the abortion-clinic bombers and the hawks who advocate using nuclear weapons in the Middle East (the kill-‘em-all-and-let-God-sort-‘em-out school of foreign policy).
On the one hand, my sense is that the postsecular situation Žižek describes applies more to Western Europe than the U.S., where a far larger percentage of the population professes to believe in God, attends church regularly, votes for politicians who purport to share their religious values, and where evangelical Christian fundamentalism is on the rise. Although many European nations have a Christian denomination as their official state religion, relatively few European citizens identify themselves as devout Christians. Consequently, some demographers predict that within the next few decades Islam could become the most influential religion in Europe, which may threaten the secular liberal traditions there.
On the other hand, the general phenomenon Žižek describes, of disavowed spiritual beliefs creating uncanny symptoms within seemingly secular populations, is clearly prevalent in the U.S. as well. His description concurs, for example, with accounts of the religiosity (or lack thereof) of voters, living primarily in urban areas, from the ‘blue states.’ Indeed, the conflict between John Kerry’s Catholicism (which conservative Catholics challenged because of Kerry’s pro-choice voting record) and his catholicism (Kerry’s attempts to be intellectually comprehensive and broad minded were spun in the media as ‘flip-flopping’) provides a model case of the politics of disavowed belief in the U.S. Moreover, if Žižek’s framework of suspended belief is properly understood - as describing the tension between living a life that takes for granted technocratic (if not necessarily scientific) knowledge and living a life according to fundamental principles of religious faith - then its applicability to much of the U.S. population, including the most devout Christians in the GOP, becomes apparent. After all, the vast majority of, say, Mormons in Salt Lake City or evangelicals in Dallas have been interpellated as capitalists first and Christians second.
Along similar lines, Žižek would argue that the Left Behind crowd misses the point of orthodox Christianity. The networked evangelical Right - so successful at marketing Jesus in its multimedia broadcasts and at superchurches, theme parks, and pop concerts - places so much emphasis on anxiously preparing for the apocalypse because it cannot imagine life on Earth being ordered in a more economically fair and just way. Instead, evangelicals fantasize about the end of the world as we know it, convinced that their alleged ‘personal relationships’ with Christ will provide them access to the Kingdom of God while the majority of dupes on the planet (including Christians of more traditional denominations) are left behind to suffer. One of Žižek’s favorite maxims, of course, is that the non-duped err (Looking Awry 69-87). To this end, Žižek asserts in the ebr interview: “The so-called moral majority fundamentalism is - to put it in slightly speculative Hegelian terms - the form of the appearance of its opposite. Let’s be serious: Nobody will convince me that people like Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and George W. Bush believe. They may even be sincere, but … from Hegel we learned how to undermine a position: not through comparing it directly with reality to assert its truth status, but seeing how the very subjective stance from which you announce a certain position undermines this position” (Rasmussen).
As for the question of whether Žižek’s proselyztizing on behalf of the Christian legacy repeats the evangelical Right’s rhetoric: actually, his arguments tend to reference more traditional conservative thinkers. While The Puppet and the Dwarf finds Žižek admiring G.K. Chesterston’s “conceptual matrix - that of asserting the truly subversive, even revolutionary, character of orthodoxy” (35) he deploys the conservative Catholic thinker’s ideas in order to oppose the logic and the values - of postmodern permissiveness and “ordained transgression” (36) - that fuel hyper-capitalism. In so doing, Žižek practices the politics of overidentification that he advocates in Contingency, Hegemony, and Universality: “in so far as power relies on its ‘inherent transgression’, then, sometimes, at least - overidentifying with the explicit power discourse - ignoring this inherent obscene underside and simply taking the power discourse at its (public) word, acting as if it really means what it explicitly says (and promises) - can be the most effective way of disturbing its smooth functioning” (220). Žižek never tires of reiterating the paradox of postmodern permissiveness: the way in which the ostensibly liberating attitudes that inform contemporary, free-market, consumer cultures - e.g. anti-authoritarian skepticism, liberal tolerance, libertarian irreverence, etc. - can engender new forms of oppression. The rejection of traditional forms of authority on the grounds that they are oppressive and patriarchal, for example, has not necessarily resulted in a state of greater freedom for most people; rather, the authoritative Other’s direct prohibitive injunctions - which we are free to reject, if we choose - get internalized in the form of a domineering superego that is constantly enjoining us to “Enjoy!” Because this persistent demand - “to resist, to violate, to go further and further” (Puppet 56) - is so vague, we feel anxious.
Convincingly, Žižek argues that the superego injunction to enjoy transgressive pleasures has become the new Norm, and “the price we pay for the absence of guilt is anxiety” (57). Our generalized anxiety, which arises because we feel obligated to enjoy, provides various others - corporations, employers, advertisers, politicians, etc. - new means of psychologically manipulating us. Therefore, in this permissive “age of anxiety,” overidentifying with traditional Christian prohibitions can provide a frame within which we can enjoy our pleasures guiltily and without debilitating anxiety. That’s the theory anyway, and Žižek would be the first to acknowledge that the strategy of overidentification is a risky one. One of his polemical points is that there are “transcendent Causes […] for which we are ready to risk our life” (95) and that we are not “really alive” unless we take up these causes with an “excessive intensity” that overrides our “focus on mere survival” (94).
The opening of The Fragile Absolute indicates that, ultimately, some mode of Marxism is Žižek’s chosen cause: “Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of new spiritualisms - the authentic Christian legacy is much too precious to be left to the fundamentalist freaks” (2). The Puppet and the Dwarf elaborates on the idea that the Left must reclaim the Christian legacy by harnessing its immanent and still largely untapped revolutionary potential. Žižek asserts: “My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach - and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience” (6). The “subversive kernel of Christianity” that Žižek extracts for his readers, then, is presented as the authentic alternative to the “perverse core” referred to in the subtitle. But before explaining the distinction Žižek makes between Christianity’s subversive kernel and its perverse core, it’s worth examining how the book’s intriguing main title cues readers in to the politics of Žižek’s critical project and the cause for which he is fighting.
Courage, Humor, Cunning, Fortitude: Benjamin’s Messianic Materialism
Žižek’s title, The Puppet and the Dwarf, alludes to the apologue that opens Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a text Žižek repeatedly references in his ever-growing corpus. Because of the extent to which Benjamin’s theses have influenced Žižek’s thinking about the relationship between theology and historical materialism, I recommend reading them and the “Revolution as Repetition” subchapter from The Sublime Object of Ideology (136-42) before cracking The Puppet and the Dwarf. For the benefit of readers who don’t have these texts at hand, I will comment briefly on why Žižek regards Benjamin’s notion of theology to be a vital contribution to Marxist thought.
First, some background on Benjamin’s theses: written at the outbreak of World War II, shortly after Benjamin’s release from a French internment camp and before his tragic attempt to flee Europe, Benjamin’s final finished piece of writing consists of a series of meditations on what constitutes a revolutionary experience of time and history. In his eighteen theses, Benjamin advocates for a decidedly interested approach to history, an historical materialism cognizant of the “tradition of the oppressed” (Illuminations 257) and sympathetic to their struggles. Historical materialism, Benjamin declares, “wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out in a moment of danger” (255). Such images, comprised from disparate historical materials, can be juxtaposed and configured into provocative “constellations” that manifest the libratory desires of a proletarian collective unconscious. In this way, the materialist historiographer’s montages will infuse a much-needed sense of political urgency about present dangers and abet resistance to Fascism.
The rise of German Fascism, Benjamin asserts, was facilitated by the complacency of the Social Democrats, who failed to grasp that “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is the not the exception but the rule” (257) and whose programs for gradual reform inadequately addressed the economic crisis between the wars. Their political complacency was informed by a naïve progressivism inherited from 19th-century historiography, which unquestioningly accepted the ruling class’s self-centered optimism and overlooked the widespread suffering of those who “toil” anonymously. Insisting, famously, that “[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism and warning that empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers,” (256) Benjamin calls for a people’s history cognizant of “class struggle,” the “fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things would exist” (254) and written in solidarity with the oppressed majority. His first thesis suggests that theology must invigorate historical materialism if the latter is to succeed in its immediate mission - to make apparent the urgent imperative to fight Fascism.
In making his case, Benjamin stages a striking technological allegory featuring an 18th-century chess-playing automaton. In this allegory, Benjamin figures historical materialism as the chess-playing puppet and theology as a wizened, hunchbacked dwarf. In order to “win all the time” (253) in the chess match symbolizing the ongoing global geopolitical struggle, the hidden dwarf must animate the puppet, secretly pulling its strings. Despite being shrunken and small of stature, theology will play a covert but decisive role in the anti-Fascist struggle. Infused with theology’s messianic perspective, the historical materialist will be prayerfully alert to potentially redemptive moments in the past, prepared to “retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger” (255).
The materialist historiographer’s project - the reactualization of “the depository of historical knowledge” embedded in the memories and archives of the oppressed class - demands “the notion of a present … in which time stands still and has come to a stop” (262). This moment of temporal fixity, in which the “flow of thoughts” is arrested and the presumed causal links between historical events are severed, enables the historical materialist to remain “in control of his powers” and to attain a conceptual clarity regarding events in the “oppressed past.” He can glean concealed meanings in images from the past and redeem revolutionary potentialities in events hitherto overlooked or misinterpreted by traditional hermeneutical historians and historicists - both of whom wrongly assume that their methodologies can adequately contain and master the contingencies of the present. On the one hand, the traditional historians, “who wish to relive an era,” aspire to “blot out everything they know about the later course of history” and to empathetically reexperience the past as it unfolded (256). Benjamin rejects this hermeneutical desire to bracket off the present, regarding it as an “indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly” (256). One’s judgments are always and already shaped by one’s subjective position as an observer, and in falsely denying his present-day position, the historian inevitably empathizes with the experience of ruling classes.
On the other hand, historicists err in making too much of their subject positions. They assert that we can never truly know the past because our understanding of it will always be tainted by our present-day knowledge. The problem with this epistemological claim is that it leads to a banal historical relativism, a refusal make definitive value judgments about the past on the grounds that its truths are ultimately unknowable. Such a refusal amounts to a de facto acceptance of the dominant historical narrative, written from the perspective of the ruling class. Similarly, for Žižek, it produces a posthistorical impasse beneficial to the capitalist status quo: an “eternal present of multiple narrativizations” in which “total dynamism [and] frantic activity” coincide with a “deeper immobility” (Puppet 134). In contrast - and for Žižek this is Benjamin’s key theoretical insight - with historical materialism it is the present, not the past, that is relativized and remains open for future rewriting: “what the proper historical stance (as opposed to historicism) ‘relativizes’ is not the past (always distorted by our present point of view) but, paradoxically, the present itself - our present can be conceived only as the outcome (not of what actually happened in the past, but also) of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past “(Fragile Absolute 90).
Benjamin’s materialist historiographer approaches the past in solidarity with the oppressed masses, whose energies - whose “courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude” (Illuminations 255) - he aims to harness in order to make a revolutionary intervention in the present. His mission: “to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history” (263). This theoretical dynamiting of the past will generate a Hegelian Aufheben, in which a “specific life” or “specific work” is preserved by the historical materialist while simultaneously being negated, excavated from its place in the illusory “continuum of history” (262-3). This process dialectically transforms the event into a catalyst in the present moment, where, ideally, it will “have retroactive force” (255) and trigger revolutionary acts that brings about real socio-economic change. Although Benjamin’s logic might seem to be radically anti-Hegelian, Žižek argues that it is not because “the suspension of movement is a key moment of the dialectical process” (Sublime Object 44). Žižek intends his writings about Christ and St. Paul to do similar dynamiting work on the Christian tradition.
Like Benjamin, Žižek aims to “wrest tradition away from the conformism that is about to overpower it” (Illuminations 255) and advocates for a theologically inspired revolutionary awareness at a moment when the Left’s egalitarian ideals are endangered. However, Žižek distinguishes the current politico-ideological landscape from that in which Benjamin wrote. After the Soviet Union’s fall, historical materialism has been discredited, and in the West various forms of spirituality are in vogue, competing with a resurgence of religious fundamentalism that is global in scope. Consequently, Žižek reverses the terms in Benjamin’s apologue. He figures historical materialism as the wizened dwarf who must remain hidden while secretly manipulating a mechanistic theology to advance its agenda. This reversal is not the only difference between Benjamin - whose “Messianic Marxism” (134) is thoroughly Judaic - and Žižek, who endorses the “shift from Judaism to Christianity with regard to the Event […] in terms of the status of the Messiah” (135).
While Benjamin and Žižek agree that revolutionary activism requires “the unconditional urgency of a Now,” (Puppet 135) Žižek finds Christianity to be more conducive to sustaining such a state. “Jewish messianic expectation,” nervously preparing for the Messiah’s arrival, breeds passivity (136). Žižek prefers the “basic Christian stance … the expected Messiah has already arrived […] we are already redeemed,” which, paradoxically, promotes activity (135-6). There can be no waiting around for the sublime God, the absolute Other, to appear. Christians must work together in order “to live up to,” to determine the meaning of, God’s act - dying on the cross as Christ ;- through which he revealed Himself to be one of us. Although Jews “stand for the universality of humankind,” Judaism remains bound to identitarian logic through its notion of Jews being the ‘Chosen People,’ whose ethnic identity resides in its adherence to the Torah’s laws, “a series of arbitrary particular rules (kosher food, etc.)” (On Belief 127-8).
In Žižek’s account - indebted to Alain Badiou’s St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism - the core Christian narrative involves the way this act, the Messiah’s death, and Paul’s fidelity to it suspend the Jewish law and clear the way for a new, proto-revolutionary community. Thanks to Paul, an unpredictable shift in the Symbolic Order occurred around two thousand years ago. Christianity went from being one of many esoteric Jewish sects competing for adherents in the Roman Empire into the religion of universality, whose followers constitute a new type of human subject. Thus, Žižek characterizes Paul as “great institutionalizer,” like Lenin (and Lacan) (9). The following homology between the theological and political makes clearer what’s at stake: Jews map onto the working class (both social groups retaining an ontological, empirically verifiable component) whereas Christians map onto the proletariat (both being defined solely by their members “assuming a certain subjective stance”) (Ticklish Subject 226-7). For Žižek, the latter groups are - in theory - more inclusive and more liberated and therefore preferable.
Christianity: The Perverse Core vs. The Subversive Kernel
So much for the allusive title. Now what about that scandalous subtitle? “The perverse core of Christianity” has nothing, necessarily, to do with widely stigmatized behaviors or aberrant sexual practices, such as the priestly pedophilia that has disgraced the Catholic Church (though this topic is mentioned in passing). Žižek discusses perversion as a Lacanian, for whom the term has a precise technical meaning: it describes a “particular psychic structure - a relation to the paternal function,” the Law of the Father (Rothenberg and Foster 4). Perverts believe they have a privileged relationship to the prohibitive law that regulates access to jouissance(intense enjoyment beyond pleasure) and the big Other who authorized the prohibitive law. Perversion constitutes a kind of “epistemophilia,” an absolute conviction that one knows what the big Other desires - rigorous obedience of the law - and that one’s (dis)obedience, i.e. obligatory transgressions, constitute an essential source of the Other’s enjoyment.
So convinced, perverts stage scenarios in which they give themselves over entirely to the enjoyment of the Other. Deriving excessive enjoyment via their “self-instrumentalization” - in slavishly working for and becoming the “object-instrument” of the Other’s jouissance - perverts effectively enslave themselves (Tarrying 193-5). In Tarrying With the Negative (which, along with The Sublime Object of Ideology and The Ticklish Subject, remains one of Žižek’s most systematically organized and thus indispensable titles) Žižek associates the libidinal economy of this “perverse self-objectivization” with totalitarianism. The Puppet and the Dwarf follows up with many clarifying and surprising examples of “perverse desubjectivization: [in which] the subject avoids its constitutive splitting by posting itself directly as an instrument of the Other’s Will” (29): the Zen Buddhist, for instance, who, in an effort to unite with the “primordial Void” (28) renounces his Selfhood and ascribes agency to his weapon.
Most significantly, the logic of perverse desubjectivization can be found at Christianity’s “hidden perverse core,” which Žižek gets at via a series of rhetorical questions: “if it is prohibited to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in Paradise, why did God put it there in the first place? Is it not that this was a part of His perverse strategy first to seduce Adam and Eve into the Fall, in order then to save them? That is to say: should one not apply Paul’s insight into how the prohibitive law creates sin to this very first prohibition also?” (15). Both the New and the Old Testaments feature stories involving heroic transgressions, stunning betrayals that in the big theological picture appear to be necessary, part of God’s divine plan. From a Lacanian perspective, this divine plan looks like God’s “perverse strategy”: God, the ultimate big Other, established the sin-creating prohibitive law for the purpose of setting Himself up as man’s redeemer. After invoking prohibitive laws (in Paradise, God’s injunction prohibiting Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of Knowledge; at the Last Supper, Christ’s “disavowed injunction” to Judas to betray him.) the Other then seduces man into betraying Him. Why? So that the Other can forgive and redeem the sinner, thereby displaying His divine benevolence.
Žižek intends us to recognize how this salvation fantasy functions ideologically: it entices Christians to assume a doubly alluring subject position - transgressive sinner and innocent instrument of God’s will - that desubjectivizes them. In this scenario - arguably the predominant, albeit disavowed, approach to Christianity - God resorts to “obscure, arch-Stalinist manipulation,” (16) while we humans are interpellated as perverts, savoring our role as instruments of the totalitarian Other’s will.
Perverse Christianity plays upon, by giving support to, believers’ disavowed elitist (supported via the fantasy about enjoying a privileged relationship with God) and hedonist (supported via the fantasy of enjoying extreme pleasure without suffering any consequences) tendencies. “Christianity offers a devious stratagem for indulging our desires without having to pay the price for them, for enjoying life without the fear of decay and debilitating pain awaiting us at the end of the day […] this is the ultimate message of Christ’s sacrifice: you can indulge in your desires, and enjoy; I took the price for it upon myself” (49). This message is captured concisely in the American colloquialism “Ya gotta sin to be saved” - a line often delivered with a knowing wink. The wink, of course, signals that one recognizes the statement’s obscene underside, its unstated implication: so you better get sinning or you’re damned! In other words, not only are your transgressions excused, they’re necessary for your salvation. This perverse “logic of reimbursement” (171) explains the tremendous appeal - upon which opportunistic politicians have capitalized - of evangelical Christianity in America’s self-indulgent consumer culture.
Take George W. Bush: after ‘discovering’ Jesus, candidate Bush’s potentially career-limiting and sometimes criminal behavior (drunk driving, alcoholism, cocaine use, going AWOL from National Guard duty, etc.) could be acknowledged publicly, framed within a larger religious narrative about conversion and redemption where they could be not simply dismissed (as no-so-youthful mistakes) but justified as a necessary stage of his spiritual rebirth. But if, “in the perverse functioning of Christianity, religion is, in effect, evoked as a safeguard allowing us to enjoy life with impunity,” Žižek reminds us that that we cannot have it all: “in succumbing to this perverse call, we compromise our desire […] what really matters” (49). Following Lacan, desire here denotes “the metonymy of our being” - the divided subject’s endless pursuit of various object-causes in an ongoing struggle to achieve an integrated existence - and giving up on one’s desire constitutes the gravest ethical betrayal of all (Lacan 321).
In contrast, the “subversive kernel of Christianity” involves following Paul’s heroic example and rigorously maintaining one’s desire, one’s fidelity to the Event - Christ’s crucifixion. It is essential to grasp the truly radical significance of the Passion, a sign of God’s impotence and agape: “Perhaps the true achievement of Christianity is to elevate a loving (imperfect) Being to he place of God, that is, of ultimate perfection. That is the kernel of the Christian experience” (115). To partake of this experience, we must discern the agnostic doubt expressed in Christ’s lament on the cross: “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” This poignant line - in which Christ’s faith and hope waivers - calls on us to identify with Christ’s recognition that God too is a fragile, divided subject. In Lacanian terms, Christ’s death reveals the nonexistence of the big Other, the fact that there is no absolute, all-powerful authority who can save us, or - to put a more uplifting spin on it - to whom we are responsible. What is revealed is a profound lesson about freedom: we posit the symbolic order, the rule of Law; it does not foreordain our Earthly activities and provides no guarantees about “the ‘objective meaning’ of our deeds” (171).
Such a revelation - what Žižek elsewhere refers to as the abyss of freedom - is intensely terrifying and painful, but also liberating. Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection as the Holy Spirit, the new community of believers, “deprived of its support in the big Other” (171). Ultimately, it is the emergence of the Pauline community that interests Žižek in Christianity, “the religion of atheism” (171). Now is the time for the political Left to fulfill the Pauline legacy by organizing as new revolutionary collective.
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