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.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben. I'd like to hear Kotsko respond to you on the point of Z's (anti)institutionalism. Isn't this question complicated by his materialist commitments?

Of course, could you imagine going to Zizzy's church?

(In my mind they open by singing, "You Are the god of My Sublation," take an offering to supplement the royalties cheque, then a preacher begins the sermon, "So have you heard the joke about the Bulgarian who...")

geoffrey holsclaw said...

when and where is that essay coming out by Milbank?

Also, while I myself find Zizek's work very productive and stimulating, I get tired by those who say things like "These atheist theologians get Christianity right, while those believers have perverted everything." I see it as more of a comment on the commentor's commitments rather than a good reading of Zizek.

this happens with Badiou also. I recently here someone enlist Badiou as a theorist of 'weak thought' who can help Christianity come out of its dogmatic commitment to orthodoxy. Terrible. Badiou offers a challenge to theology, but not that way.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

"1960s faux radicalism"

Much better to have the 2008 orthodox version of faux radicalism? Isn't the complaint against Altizer always the same one? And how exactly do you decide if it is bad theology?

Anthony Paul Smith said...

"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 “kernel” must be discarded, so that Christianity can return to its founding moment as a religion of atheism."

Surely you've mistaken the shell with the kernel.

Adam Kotsko said...

I posted a response, but it seems to have disappeared.

In any case, I want to thank you for the review, which is for the most part generous. However, I do have a couple responses -- first of all, why the knee-jerk annoyance at the mention of Altizer? I have seen this in many forums. Are you similarly dismissive of Bonhoeffer? Are there other theologians who are better comparisons? (Surely not Milbank!)

Also, on anti-institutionalism: I obviously disagree with you. I have addressed every point you make already in the book, through chapters 3 and 4 and then also in the section on Zizek's relationship to the Marxist tradition in chapter 5. In particular, I think you are misinterpreting the notion of the "Holy Spirit," which he understands in terms of the "discourse of the analyst" -- an anti-institutional social bond. The discourse of the analyst is his political model, not the Soviet Union. (And do you really want to be implicitly comparing the Church to the Soviet Union?)

If you weren't convinced, of course, you weren't convinced -- but I wonder if your disagreement is in part motivated by your desire to enlist Zizek as a kind of quasi-Catholic. That gesture is especially strange given that you seem to be excited about Milbank's forthcoming essay that characterizes Zizek as too Protestant -- following up on his critique in Theology and the Political that might be characterized as a critique of Zizek's anti-institutionalism on an ontological level.

If Milbank and I agree descriptively on Zizek, and if you are very jazzed about Milbank's essay, then why can't you simply say, "Zizek's anti-institutionalism is untenable and makes him less useful for theology than he could be"? (Or for that matter, why not say, "Zizek's theology really is like Altizer's -- which shows that he's not really worth taking seriously theologically"?)

Adam Kotsko said...

Also, Geoff, if your comment refers to me, it seems unfair -- it's not an accurate characterization of my book, nor does it seem to come from Ben's description thereof.

Anonymous said...

Ben's review includes an example of recent theologians’ use of the word “only”: according to Ben, "Kotsko argues that Christianity can regain its subversive kernel only by 'tak[ing] the risk of an authentic Žižekian ethical abandoning the shell of its institutional organization.'" The use of “only” that I have in mind can't be ascribed to Kotsko himself, standing as it does outside the quotation marks; nevertheless, it does exemplify a trend in recent theology. My question, then, is this: how should we interpret the word "only" as used by contemporary theologians such as David Bentley Hart, John Milbank, and Catherine Pickstock? (Jamie Smith has an interesting catalog of such uses in his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, 166-7.)

Suppose we accept Donald Davidson's claim that, in order to count as a plausible, defensible interpretation of another's marks & noises, one must try, as far as possible, to assign truth-conditions that make them come out as correct; if so, it would appear that one should not interpret these uses of “only” as having a literal, assertoric sense, since doing so would ascribe either ignorance or systematic error to its user. That is to say, most of these uses of “only,” if taken straightforwardly, are plainly false, wildly implausible, and/or question-begging, since one would be entitled to the claim “x only if y” only if one could demonstrate at least (a) that the value of x had not been defined in terms according to which y must be a necessary condition of x—otherwise one’s claim would be either trivial or circular—and (b) that there were no possible conditions where x would occur apart from that which y supplies, since “x only if y” entails, if true, “not y, therefore not x”. So we had better not interpret the sentences in question in a literal, assertoric sense, since I take it to be obvious not only that they do not meet these conditions, but that their authors have no intention of doing so.

But how, then, should these sentences be interpreted? As hyperbole? Such that when RO remarks that “the absolute Christian vision of ontological peace provides the only alternative to a nihilistic outlook,” that “theology alone remains the discourse of non-mastery,” that Christianity is “the only non-nihilistic perspective, and the only perspective able to uphold even finite reality,” and so on, we should take it as hyperbole rather than a literal claim? Nothing wrong with hyperbole, of course, but I’m not sure how well this works as an interpretation, either, since the onlys in question—in RO, at least—are supposed to underwrite apologetic triumphs which are themselves construed in straightforwardly assertoric terms. That is to say: if “the Christian vision of ontological peace provides the only alternative to a nihilistic outlook” is a hyperbolic way of saying “the Christian vision of ontological peace provides a helpful way of avoiding nihilism,” then one has in fact claimed not that Christianity is a necessary condition of peaceableness, but that Christianity is a sufficient condition, from which it follows that, even if one’s claim is successful, one has not entitled oneself to the further claim that every other “ism” is ipso facto unable to avoid nihilism. (Note well, by the way, that I am not saying that the meaning of a hyperbolic statement is nothing but its literal paraphrase; I take it that there is something more involved, but that this “something more” is not relevant to the present point.)

Perhaps, then, I should try reinterpreting the would-be apologetic triumphs that I take RO and company to be claiming? I would be happy to do so, since these triumphs are precisely where I think they go off the rails...but then, what’s so interesting about RO (and their kin)?

Maybe someone could provide an alternative interpretation of these onlys that avoids these problems; if so, I would welcome it.

Brad said...

Re: "The fact that this is bad theology scarcely needs to be pointed out" -- have you intentionally ascribed the drift of Zizek's theology to Kotsko? In doing so, is Zizek's theology rendered good by your interpretation?

It seems to me that Zizek's atheistic theology would have to be considered bad theology, inasmuch as it is not in the service of "good" / accepted Christian theology. If this is the case, the fact that it is BAD would seem to reinforce Kotsko's argument re: anti-institutionalism.

Adam Kotsko said...

Anonymous's quotation called to my attention the fact that you're attributing to me, Adam Kotsko, what is in fact an account of Zizek's argument. In fact, the direct quote attributed to me personally is virtually a paraphrase of the last paragraph of The Puppet and the Dwarf. At no point in the book do I take a position on what Christianity must do to reclaim its subversive kernel, nor on whether Christianity has such a kernel.

More generally, the number of positions I take in my own name on questions not directly related to the interpretation of Zizek is trivial.

Anonymous said...

Hi Adam,

First, congratulations on the book. I've already bought it and look forward to reading it. So the next time you have a cappuccino, think of it (by way of your royalties) as on me!

Then I have good news and bad news - about Bonhoeffer.

The good news is that you may have an ally there on the institutional church. Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" was in no way a churchless Christianity; on the contrary, Bonhoeffer's Christology and ecclesiology are inextricably, even ontologically connected. But the later Bonhoeffer had grave misgivings about the church as a bureaucratic institution with a propensity for self-orbiting. He would be aghast at today's managerial church. At the very least he envisioned a radical re-organisation, actually suggesting that the church should sell its property and make its resources available to the poor.

The bad news, however, is the link with Altizer. As Stanley Hauerwas so characteristically pulls his punches on the death-of-Godders' co-opting of Bonhoeffer for their own project: "the shitheads got him." I'm an expat New Yorker, so the language doesn't faze me, and with the judgment of misappropriation I am bound to agree.

Brad said...

In Kotsko's book, Bonhoeffer is related to Zizek, not to Altizer.

Dave Belcher said...

Kim, I usually find your comments to be very thoughtful, so I hope that perhaps you and Ben might be able to elucidate on why it is precisely Altizer is simply to be dismissed...meaning, neither you nor anyone else I've seen lately who simply dismisses him have actually done so on good, theological grounds. There might indeed be such grounds, but maybe they should actually be exposed so that folks like me don't begin to come to the conclusion that the real problem people are having with Altizer is that they just haven't read his works. Tom is a sometimes-contributor to both of Adam's sites, and never treats his own "opponents" with such disrespect. He is first and foremost a thinker, and should thus be treated with the same respect as a Hauerwas -- especially since even Hauerwas can evince a sort of thoughtlessness at times.

Perhaps what really needs to be addressed here -- and I tend to think this might actually be why, you know, Adam made the link -- is the usage of Hegel in both Zizek and Altizer, since it is central to both of their "systems." Peace.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't uncritically endorse Altizer in my section on him -- but my criticisms are at least specific.

Perhaps his theology is just so stupid that it's not worth addressing in detail, but having read his work, it's very difficult for me to believe that. For instance, few recent theological writings match the brilliance of his discussion of Augustine and Nietzsche in Genesis and Apocalypse.

Adam Kotsko said...

Also, Kim, thank you very much for buying my book. (Given how poor I am, you have significantly increased my net worth!)

geoffrey holsclaw said...

grr. my comments is devoured by the oblivion of the cyber-space.

anyway, adam. my comment was not directed at you. it just triggered a thought process related to a conference presentation I heard recently, as well as many of my emerging church friends who say things like "the only way to be faithful to christianity is to betray it". Which I know Z. comes close to saying. Sometimes you think he wants us to side with Judas, but then he changes and tells us that that is precisely the (perverse) trap to be avoided.

Anyway, looking forward to the book.

Anonymous said...

First, please forgive me, Dave - and Adam - and Tom - if by citing Hauerwas I came across as ad hominem and disrespectful. My point was specifically about Bonhoeffer, who (I submit) would never have agreed with Altizer's kenotic collape of transcendence into immanance, or the rather Pelagian notion that "the good news of the death of God" would lead to human liberation. And Altizer's alien God - he is more like Blake's Old Nobodaddy than the God of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth (but then Altizer, as I remember, isn't too keen on classic Christian tradition, is he?).

Mind, I'm running on memory here - in the library cull that was forced on me a few years ago by lack of shelf-space, I'm afraid the few death-of-God books I had went the way of most of my Cupitt - and I shall certainly attend to what Adam has to say in his book.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

"Which I know Z. comes close to saying. Sometimes you think he wants us to side with Judas, but then he changes and tells us that that is precisely the (perverse) trap to be avoided."

That's an incomplete presentation. It's not as if Zizek's dialectical approach is a two-step. The way you present it Zizek would have no choice but to be a Christian. His actual position goes something like this, using the terms of your presentation, "the only way to be faithful to Christianity is to betray it", but one must resist this very betrayal of Christianity as it is pure ideology serving to convince ourselves that we are somehow not part of the problem, and the way in which one does so is ultimately through a more radical betrayal of Christianity that responds to its call of "confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, and thou shalt be saved" with a "I would prefer not to." Zizek's materialist or atheist theology is not at all amenable to the furthering or goals of Christian theology.

One of the things I found so irksome with this review, and reviews are often irksome (even writing them), is that it presents the book as something other than an introduction to Zizek and Zizek's relationship to theology. Kotsko is quite explicit about the aims of the book and what it is not doing. It was most certainly nothing like a "theological engagement" with Zizek. It is there to help people who want to have an intelligent theological engagement with Zizek's work. Granted, I know Adam and we're friends, but I would say this even if I didn't know Adam. Quite simply this is the best introductory text I've ever read. Introductions are often move beyond their task of introducing in an attempt to show the brilliance of the author. Adam's book does not suffer from such vainglorious writing. It is simply a clear, accurate, and well-written book.

As for the whole "Zizek doesn't fit in with contemporary leftists" line - does anyone actually know any contemporary leftists? They love bureaucracy! They created bureaucracy! It is what (is supposed to) protects people from racism and sexism; and, contrary to what some may be led to believe, Zizek isn't "into" racism and sexism. If Zizek talks about bureaucracy at all it is because it is part of the leftist tradition.

Ben Myers said...

Geoff: the Milbank essay is written in response to an essay (of similar length!) by Zizek on "The Monstrosity of Christ" — I'm not sure exactly when or where they'll be published, but I think Creston Davis is editing the volume.

Adam, many thanks for responding to my criticisms; and thanks also to Anthony for your interesting comments (and your post on "quasi-Catholics"). For what it's worth, I'm really not coming from a quasi-Catholic direction — more from the direction of a Bonhoefferian ecclesiology, in which any distinction between the church's invisible "kernel" and its institutional/corporate "shell" becomes simply unthinkable.

And Anthony, I appreciate your point about the modesty of Adam's book, and its serviceableness as an introduction. As Rex Butler observes in his own introduction to Zizek, the task for someone who wants to comment on Zizek is not to explain him (he never ceases doing that himself!), but rather to problematise him, to make him more difficult. I guess it's this dimension of difficulty that I would have liked to see a bit more in Adam's theological engagement: connecting Zizek to catchphrase of "religionless Christianity" and to anti-institutional sentiments seems just too easy. So yes, I guess I would have liked a more robust and more challenging theological engagement — I realise that the whole genre of "introductions" can be an obstacle here, but on the other hand I suspect Rex Butler's point might be right, that the best way to "introduce" Zizek is to make him more difficult.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Thanks for the comment. Still, it seems that you must be reading a different Zizek. I've been reading Zizek's work for some time now and my main obstacle was that I could never quite tease out what he was doing. Adam's book brought that out and allowed me to see what exactly that was. I haven't read Butler's introduction, but it seems to me any attempt to introduce a thinker by making him more difficult is fundamentally flawed.

As for your own orientation, that is fine, but why not simply say that this is no Zizek's as the texts support? As for the easiness of being anti-institutional, well, one would need an argument for that. It seems to me that, for its flaws, radical theology was at least critical of the failures of the institutional church and was so far beyond catchphrases like "prophetic". One cannot simply reduce it, as Hauerwas tends to do, with theological liberalism. Basically, I don't see it being easy as you do.

All of this, though, is far outside anything to do with the book. Adam merely points to some possible connections and ones that Zizek himself now recognizes. In that way his book may not be difficult, but it is accurate.

Anonymous said...

My Myers,

FYI the article, "Causality and the Analogia Entis" which was presented in brief at the Karl Barth society meeting in Washington DC, and which you reported on shortly after, has now been published with Nova et Vetera, Summer 08. I had promised I would send you the citation when it came out.

Unknown said...


Could you perhaps say a little more about your Bonhoeffer reference? Certainly, it seems that on the whole for Bonhoeffer "church" (though the way he works through the classic Lutheran and Reformed distinction between the "visible" and "invisible" of this church is not always clearly consistent, it seems to me) only ever occurs as a visible sign and proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God, of the Gospel itself. But it seems to me that there is a sense in which for Bonhoeffer such ecclesial visibility resists any kind of "institutionalization," as such. That is, what the church "is" cannot be delivered to us through any given "institution" but rather its "organization" (to use Bonhoeffer's preferred term) is a gift to be received via evernew forms that are at once strangely unpredictable yet recognizably strange. Only as such is the church visibly a sign -- a sacrament -- of Christ's body, of the sociality that arises as we are gathered by the Spirit for participation in the life of that one who confronts us ever-anew as other: Jesus Christ himself. (Hence, Bonhoeffer's very Protestant predilection for speaking of church as "Gemeinde" rather than as simply "Kirche".)

This is, roughly, how I read Bonhoeffer's later thoughts on the church in the Prison letters in relation to his earlier ecclesiological writings. I guess I am just wondering to what extent you see such a reading resonating with your point (which is correct, I think) that for Bonhoeffer the idea of any easy distinction between a visibly institutional "shell" and invisible "kernal" to the church is unthinkable (better, perhaps, to say non-sensical). But also, I wonder about how you think this reading might differ from the anti-institutionalism that you critique in Adam's reading of Zizek and Bonhoeffer, while also avoiding the kind of quasi-Catholicism that Anthony has so helpfully identified and critiqued.

Adam Kotsko said...

For me, the alternative to institutionalism isn't mindless chaos, and I'm not saying that Zizek embraces mindless chaos. Of course the revolution has to take on some determinate, if provisional, social form -- but Ben's post made it out to be that Zizek is saying that the point of the revolution is to build a bureaucracy. (Perhaps that was just a product of the short format of the review.) Similarly, in the "quasi-Catholic" position, "the church" as an institution becomes an end in itself.

Surely we can break out of this polarity between individualism (evangelicalism, for example) and authoritarianism (strong forms of Catholicism)! Bonhoeffer seems to me to be offering one hugely important way out -- to something more like a Nancean "being-with."

No matter how successful he is, Zizek is at least trying to do something similar with his politics of the "discourse of the analyst," which is a kind of sociality that does not rely on a fetishized institution or authority figure. (And Zizek's "death of God" theology is actually crucial to how he works this out -- Christ is the "master signifier" who lets us in on the joke through his death.)

Anonymous said...

Anthony - on leftists and their hankering for institutions. That's a characterization that usually comes from one of two places: right-wingers collapsing liberals and leftists because they don't know the difference, and anyone unfamiliar with internal debates within the Left all along. Either way, it's hardly right to say that lefties love their institutions. However, it's an image that arises from the very historical scenes that Zizek so oddly valorizes

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