Sunday, November 8, 2009

Strive, Automaton, Strive!

Here are Noah Berlatsky and I discussing The Monstrosity of Christ by my favorite Marxist academic rock star, Slavok Zizek, and John Milbank, a pomo Catholic theologian—I am now editing this in June ’10, as I’m about to have a piece published about this book and want people to see some of Noah’s contributions to my take on their take on onto-theology.


Milbank is hobbled by a couple of things...mostly by not really being as good a writer as Zizek, I think (Milbank isn't a bad writer, and he certainly has his moments; that line where he says Zizek doesn't believe in sex or midnight is kind of a doozy, and maybe where he should have started and ended rather than it just being a one off. He sort of hints at it in the way he calls Zizek's reality boring a number of times, I guess.

Maybe the way to go after Zizek here and wander towards the resurrection would be by pointing out that Christ is not just god, but man; if you take the crucifixion literally, therefore, what's dying is not just god, but also man. That's not radical freedom of action for man freed from God; that's just being dead (which is also maybe where existentialism can be hooted; death doesn't make life more meaningful, it just makes it dead.) That makes the Resurrection about human life as miracle and gift, too.)

I was rereading your discussion with the Marxist big other, again...and thinking again about Zizek's hedging around whether or not there is a god. He does come out and say that there is no God at various points...but there's always a "but" or an "and". (for instance "God is dead not to hide some transcendent truth, but to hide the fact that there is nothing to hide." — okay, God is dead, there's nothing to hide — but then why is God hiding? The formulation here makes it seem like God (dead or otherwise) is actively concealing something. Of course it's a metaphor -- but why are you using this metaphor? or "God is nothing but his own Revelation to us." again, OK — but that's really not exactly saying that God is nothing.)

I think your formulation of Zizek as attempting to retain materialist cred is really strikingly apt; he's always flapping the death of God around in the foreground so you won't notice that he's got God right there in the background. It's not like he doesn't know he's doing it, of course...but it's definitely weird. I wonder if he prays, and/or if he would admit it? Or would he say that his writing is a kind of prayer?


The death of man is an awesome metaphor-- and it hits the Orwellians right where they live ("If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man.") As Zizek suggests, Christ is noon, the time when we stop looking back to the beginning and start looking forward to the end. There is no Gnostic heresy without Christ, and therefore there is no humanism as a mystic monolithic cult of the elect, as opposed to the chaotic experimentation of ancient Greece. Basically I want to learn and hear a lot more about heresy, from Milibank and in general.
That doesn't necessarily deal with the Resurrection issue, except maybe to suggest that we are living in a ghost world.. like Sarah Connor leaping at the camera in the interview and screaming "you're all fucking dead."

I appreciate your appreciation of my Zizek-as-theist harangue-- it's my thing about Zizek being the poster child for "thou dost protest too much" atheism, especially since he is both more lucid and more elusive in his self-awareness than Ditchkins-type jerkoffs. One reason I became a Christian is because I didn't want to be that any more. Defending Christians is different from defending blacks or gays or women. To accept people who are different is to make the world more just, but to patronize people who believe differently is to marginalize them further.
I think Zizek is milton and millibank is wordsworth. I do like
Millibank (especially that line where he says Zizek and Lacan don't
believe in sex or midnight; that was almost Chesterton-worthy.) But
it's kind of telling that he thinks the big paradoxes around God are
to be found by driving through the rural English countryside, rather
than in Job (where Zizek sees at least some of them.) Zizek has the
Miltonic/Byronic/heroic romanticism of man against an indifferent
cosmos, but Millibank has the placid romanticism of the bourgeois poet
looking at nature and figuring God must exist because said bourgeois
poet feels pleasantly about existence.

It's interesting that Zizek and Millibank both talk a lot about
Chesterton, but not at all about C.S. Lewis, who I think is really a
profounder poet and thinker in a lot of ways (even though I love
Chesterton.) Does Zizek engage with Lewis anywhere? He just manages
to engage with problems of evil in a way I never really see Chesterton


C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, right? Really neither a proper Catholic or Protestant. Which is why they can have a gay bishop. Also, what about someone like James Hogg? A sort of Catholic/atheist poet who really excels at describing evil Calvinists?
I think you're right about the Wordsworth/Milton thing-- but Chesterton (who loves Job) really was pretty edgy, with the whole willingness to admit Christ as God's atheist moment, but also denouncing contemporary nihilism as superstitious... and I think neither Zizek or Milbank matches up to that kind of distilled spiritual vinegar.

Selling out more thoroughly is excellent advice (as is removing the hip boots from one's arms while drumming). It kind of works for Zizek and Milbank, who do have earnest disagreements (I had never even heard of Duns Scotus before), but are kind of back to back arguing for some benign authoritarian faith-based throwback society, going at it theologically completely via metaphysics and sort of both winding up saying that the other guy is too literal-minded and doesn't get that the universe is really all vibrating and multiple. And neither of them talk about love or sex or Godhead or justice or evil or apocalypse enough for my taste.


Is it me, or does Zizek completely ignore the Resurrection? He argues
repeatedly that the central mystery of Christianity is Christ's death
on the cross...but I think that's kind of a cheat, isn't it? The
central mystery is his return (I remember very well Paul Townend
explaining that in class once.)

It's weird that Millibank doesn't call him on that, either. What does
Zizek do with the Resurrection? If the point of Christianity is the
death of god (i.e., God does not exist, we are all alone and free) —
what happens when God gets up again a few days later? Were we just
free for 48 hours or whatever? Does the Resurrection not count
because Thomas doubted it? Or what?


This is part of Milbank's squeamishness around Actual Dogma. It's not irrelevant to work out aspects of faith in extreme abstraction, so you don't have to immediately deal with the whole walking-on-water thing as soon as you express a feeling this way or that on Christianity as a worldview. But that was my whole issue with the book-- no Gospel quotes, no specific moral conundra, nothing on life after (universal or individual) death, basically almost no stuff that's not in Paul's letters. Really the book is a whole lot more about God (Creator) than it is about Jesus (Creation). And Paul is not real chatty about resurrection, outside of 1 Corinthians 15 (best I can tell). For Milibank to correct Zizek he would have been required to explain the unexplainable and stand behind the central mystery of Christian faith in a way that he may think might have hobbled him in a scholarly debate. There are all those weird questions-- did he reincarnate in flesh? Did he die again? Why did he have to pretend to die at all? Basically (I think) there is little agreement among Christians on how to deal with that topic.

I think you're right-- it's really sort of like the Bush-Kerry campaign. Milibank doesn't introduce any points not originally offered by Zizek, so he's always on the defensive, and ends up losing the argument.

Eagleton juggles that in just the kind of way some Christians often seem to. He has one place where he says that all Christianity is for nought if Jesus' body is mingled with the dust of Palestine, and then later he says that the empty tomb is not the kind of truth that could be proved or disproved with a photograph.

I think there are polite and impolite issues in Christianity. Some churches are all about the polite stuff: love, justice, faith. Some churches are all about the impolite stuff: sin, miracles, obedience. Given the relative de-schismatic consolidation of Catholic and Protestant, I think that Low and High Church split is actually now more important.


Aha! Just got to Zizek on the resurrection; it's apparently a metaphor for the way an inspirational example lives on in a community of radical believers. "I may die, but what I stood for will inspire you...and so I live on!"
Which seems like really weak tea. Zizek goes to a lot of effort to read the death of God literally...and then we're supposed to take the resurrection as not just a metaphor, but a cliched metaphor? Joan Baez on Joe Hill is the meaning of the resurrection? I mean, I like Joan Baez, and labor organizing is cool, but...why are we talking about Christ at all then if this is the point, exactly? And if this is indeed the point, why aren't you out there organizing rather than having a debate about God?

It makes me realize how unusual Marston was, as a writer/philosopher/thinker whose career path is entirely congruent with, and justifiable by, his philosophy. He thought women should rule and boys should learn to be submissive; he created a body of work to teach women to rule and boys to be submissive, and that body of work was read by both girls and boys. It might or might not have worked, but you can't say he wasn't trying. Whereas Zizek has the same problem as all Marxist academics — basically, who the hell are you talking to? And why?
I'm not sure Milbank has the same problem, actually. The Catholic hierarchy, each should do what is apportioned to each thing — he's not a revolutionary, and he could certainly see it as a worthwhile goal to try to point a handful of academics towards the light.


Joan Baez on Joe Hill-- total body blow. I think Benjamin and the Frankfurters made it okay for theorists to just theorize-- after all, the imaginary utopia needs a propaganda cabal to inspire the educated vanguard. And then there's the '68 moment. It might really be that Marxism is facing the same kind of historical collapse that Christianity is supposed to have had, and it's hoping to resurrect similarly, in a hands-off sort of coattail-riding phenomenon.
Zizek is a rock star, and, speaking from my love toward him, I feel he wants to heal the gay-fundamentalist split, just like I do, although he doesn't precisely care about either of those groups. More like Irish Marxists and Polish Catholics, but maybe that's the European equivalent.

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