Monday, 21 July 2008

Adam Kotsko: Žižek and theology

Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 174 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

“Protestantism … posits the relationship [between Christ and humanity] as real, conceiving Christ as a God who, in his act of Incarnation, freely identified himself with his own shit, with the excremental Real that is man – and it is only at this level that the properly Christian notion of divine love can be apprehended.” —Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 187.

Slavoj Žižek is hardly a conventional theological thinker. But he has been talking about Christian theology for several years now, so it’s only fitting that theologians should start to return the favour. In this new book, Adam Kotsko (who blogs here and here) tries to discover what has led Žižek into the unlikely territory of Christian theology, and what Žižek’s work might mean for theologians today.

The book is mainly organised as an account of Žižek’s development. Kotsko rejects the idea that Žižek’s work forms a static system or that it is merely eclectic and incoherent; instead, he tries to map out a trajectory leading from Žižek’s earlier work to his “theological turn.” This trajectory is presented as a kind of Hegelian dialectic: Žižek’s early stage culminates in the renunciation of liberalism; in his middle stage, he retreats into theory in search of a new political option; and in his later stage, he presents this renunciation itself as the new political option. The trajectory of Žižek’s political thought is thus presented as a repetition of failed gesture, a Hegelian “negation of negation” (pp. 124-25).

Kotsko focuses mainly on Žižek’s overtly theological texts, and he provides some illuminating insights into why theology matters for Žižek. For instance, in one of the book’s most interesting passages, Kotsko discusses Žižek’s understanding of nature and creation: “Žižek claims that the universe originated in some disruption that interrupted the harmonious balance of the abyss of pure potentiality, which is to say that existence itself emerged out of a fundamental imbalance…. To understand humanity properly, then, one must not follow the typical procedure of reducing all human behaviour to some ‘natural’ explanation. Instead, one must throw out the customary idea of nature as internally consistent and harmonious” (pp. 116-17). And the real importance of Žižek’s work emerges when Kotsko turns (unfortunately only briefly) to the question of ethics: “The key question in Žižek’s context is …, within what ontology are we ethically playing for keeps?” (p. 120).

Further, Kotsko rightly draws attention to the fundamental and intrinsic atheism of Žižek’s theology: “Just as Kierkegaard’s God must be understood as the lack of an overarching guarantee of life’s meaningfulness, so also the properly ‘theological’ level is that which exposes the human subject as self-legislating, with no master – meaning that for Žižek, ‘theology’, properly understood, refers to the most radical atheism” (p. 123).

But when it comes to exploring Žižek’s importance for contemporary theology, Kotsko’s analysis is, unfortunately, less convincing. He suggests that Žižek’s atheistic theology is an “independent discovery” of Bonhoeffer’s remarks about “religionless Christianity,” and of Thomas J. J. Altizer’s – fleetingly fashionable, but now rather tiresome – ruminations on the death of God. Žižek himself probably deserves better than to be compared to the catch-phrases of 1960s faux radicalism. In any case, Kotsko argues that Christianity can regain its subversive kernel only by “tak[ing] the risk of an authentic Žižekian ethical act, in the sense of a self-directed choice for the worst, by abandoning the shell of its institutional organization” (p. 99). The institutional shell must be discarded, so that Christianity can return to its founding moment as a religion of atheism.

The fact that this is bad theology scarcely needs to be pointed out. But it’s doubtful whether this anti-institutional proposal even represents a legitimate interpretation of Žižek himself. One of the striking things about Žižek – one of the reasons why he is really not at home among contemporary leftists – is his radical commitment to institutions and bureaucracy (see, for example, his essay “Heiner Muller Out of Joint,” in The Universal Exception, pp. 42-61). For Žižek, revolution becomes possible only as revolutionary passion is sublated into the cold machinations of institutional organisation. In this sense, revolution is nothing but bureaucracy. Or to make the same point in ecclesiological terms: for Hegel, the “Holy Spirit” designates not the private enthusiasm of individual believers, but the corporate life of the church as such. The typical leftist dream of a revolution without institutions – a dream upon which the “death of God” theology of the 60s was also based – has little to do with Žižek’s politics, and it has even less to do with sound christology and ecclesiology.

In sum, then, this book is a useful introduction to Žižek’s theological writing – and it will be especially useful for those who’ve been wanting to read Žižek, but don’t know where to start. But I think the book’s attempt at a constructive theological engagement with Žižek is disappointing. Nevertheless, Kotsko is certainly not trying to have the last word here: he’s simply trying to whet our appetite, and to start a conversation about why Žižek is interested in theology, and why this might matter. (For a full theological engagement with Žižek’s work, we’ll have to wait for the publication of John Milbank’s magisterial 65,000-word essay, “The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek” – an astonishingly rich and penetrating analysis of Žižek’s Hegelianism, which argues that the problem with Žižek is that he is far too Protestant!)

All criticisms aside, I think Kotsko’s concluding point is very apposite for contemporary theology. While “a certain humourlessness could be said to dominate the entire Christian tradition,” Kotsko suggests that theologians might need to encounter Žižek’s work as a fundamental critique of such humourlessness: “they have somehow managed to miss the joke of Christianity.”

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