Friday, 12 September 2008

The end of the world: re-framing the Milbank-Žižek dialogue

A guest-post by Scott Stephens [This is an excerpt from Scott’s paper in Rome, which critiqued the concept of excess/plentitude in the work of Žižek and Milbank.]

Although it is most certainly out of fashion to refer to him, much less refer to him favourably, let me confess that I always found Jean Baudrillard most interesting when he was being most conservative. For instance, in the course of a debate with Francesco Bonami at the University of Venice in 2003, Baudrillard reiterated his disdain for the ‘aesthetic banality’ of modern art, whose farcical nihilism is best expressed in the very pathetic attempt to ‘strive for nullity when it is already null and void’. (Not a bad description for those solipsistic, and in the end masturbatory, disciplines that today are commonly grouped under the name ‘cultural studies’, or even ‘theory’ – striving for nullity when they are already null and void.)

The very desire to produce art according to a certain intellectual or affective fashion had transposed nihilism into kitsch. The problem, Baudrillard said, is that there is too much art: ‘But this is not only true for art: there is too much of too much.… Francesco Bonami … didn’t agree.… “How can there be too much?” said Bonami. “You can never have enough of a good thing.” And I countered, “And obesity? You don’t think there’s a pathology in there, do you?”’

What enables this judgment of too-muchness, of a kind of cultural and pseudo-aesthetic obesity, is Baudrillard’s altogether novel recovery of the Aristotelian analytic of ‘form’ – the idea that things exist within their appropriate dimensions, that proper limits inhere to things as such. But, as with all genuine philosophical recoveries, this one comes with a couple of amendments. First, Baudrillard insists that these formal limits are never known in advance, but only become apparent once those limits are obscured or exceeded. Second (and this is his great contribution to the rigorous thinking of this cultural moment), that this very excess, the production of ‘too-much’ which spills over its designated space, thereby obtains a peculiar, even autonomous, ontological status.

The obese here becomes the monstrous: capitalism as a ‘system of objects’, a resistant, adaptive domain which elicits consumption and renders humanity, at best, entranced spectators on a world that was formerly theirs, or, at worst, utterly servile. Having come into being precisely by casting off the Aristotelian teleology inherent to form, and thus existing entirely free from any causal logic or cultural necessity, Baudrillard repeatedly demonstrates the way that capitalism qua excess obeys its own laws and protects itself against contradiction. It is a system devoid of negativity, a ‘banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning’. There is, after all, no way of opposing a system that is already a complexio oppositorum.

This absence of negativity or contradiction has thus led, not merely to the cultural de-formation of form, but, under the conditions of capitalism, to the ontological normalization of obesity itself. And we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the sheer girth of the corpulent capitalist body has been the decisive factor in its survival. Size makes criticism and negation impossible because it already enfolds within itself the false processes of reversal, accommodation and neutralization.

A remarkably precise formulation of this quality can be found in James Wood’s review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (perhaps the last great novel of the twentieth century and, along with Martin Amis’ Money, one of the most gruesome – which is to say accurate – portrayals of the obscene affective structure of late-capitalism). ‘The book is so large’, Woods writes, ‘so serious, so ambitious … that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ.… It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism.’

I begin this paper with a slightly extended treatment of the ontology of ‘size’ for two reasons. As I will demonstrate, the ontological status of an irreducible excess in/of/over ‘natural life’ is at the core of the disputation between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek (and forms the basis of my disagreement with both of them). But beyond that, and this is my second reason, it is also worth pointing out that size is an essential theoretical and rhetorical cum pugilistic strategy for Milbank and Žižek. And while it is tempting to regard the magnitude of their engagements rather cynically – as preemptive or even obsessive attempts to overwhelm their hapless detractors (although I suspect that’s part of it), and thereby to make criticism ‘a small germ’ – I’d suggest that there is something else, something more serious happening here.

In our time, so-called radical philosophy, or leftist thought in general, has resigned itself to the production of ‘minority reports’, occasional invectives which assume their failure in advance (all under the pathetic justification of ‘speaking the truth to power’); the same trend is visible in the field of theology, which has become disgustingly self-congratulatory over its currently impoverished state, a fact signaled by the almost total disappearance of the grave discipline of dogmatics and the concomitant ascendency of the ‘essay’ (whether on its own or as a collection of incidental pieces).

In this sort of intellectual ferment, the size, ambition and sheer pugnacity of Milbank’s and Žižek’s oeuvres function in a manner similar to Fredric Jameson’s description of the role played by violence in the revolutionary process, that is, as a kind of authentication of the seriousness of the process itself. Their work embodies a heedless commitment to the theologico-philosophical task proper: that is, simply to go on, regardless of the proclivities, fashions and false urgencies of the present – as Karl Barth put it, theology ought to be ‘something like the chanting of the hours by the Benedictines ... which goes on undoubtedly without break or interruption’. And it is fidelity to the renewed theologico-philosophical vision (whose contours one can now also discern in the work of, say, Alain Badiou and Cathérine Malabou), as well as their conviction that only this antique vision can effectively oppose the well-nigh unassailable reign of capitalism, that unite Milbank and Žižek in their refusal of the demands of leftist pseudo-moralism, and in their outright disdain for so much contemporary theology (especially of the liberal Protestant variety).

To quote Milbank: ‘What is ironic in Žižek’s project is that he insists that Christianity alone articulates a universal logic, but does so in an atheistic mode. This renders him, of course, far nearer to “orthodoxy” (as he acknowledges) than all those craven, weak, sentimental theologians, doused in multiple tinctures of mauvaise foi, who claim to believe in some sort of remote, abstract, transcendent deity and who yet compromise the universal claims of Christianity in favour of mystical relativism, glorification of hypostasised uncertainty and practical indulgence in the malignly infinite air-shuttle of mindless “dialogue”.’

After Žižek offended so many on the left with his full-throated espousal of Zac Snyder’s film 300, praising the Spartan culture of discipline over against the decadence of Athenian liberal democracy, is it too much privately to indulge in the image of Milbank and Žižek occupying the breach at Thermopilae, standing ‘against the reign of mystique and tyranny’ in the form of Levinasian alterity, liberal Protestantism, leftist masochism and the panoply of Eastern mysticisms, courageously insisting on the universality of the European intellectual tradition and the primacy of Reason?


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