Thursday 11 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?


Brian Hamilton-Vise said...

Any chance, Scott, you'd be willing to e-mail the whole of this paper? If so, my address is bdhamilton at gmail.

scott said...

That was terrific. I hope we see it in full print at some point soon.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... and it is very good to see that somebody else is reading Baudrillard. I have enjoyed his work quite a lot.

a. steward said...

On the issue of the obesity of capitalism, Wendell Berry has a fantastic essay in the May issue of Harpers entitled Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.

dpotter said...

Sorry to be picky here folks, but shouldn't it be 'plenitude' rather than 'plentitude'?

Ben Myers said...

Hey DPotter -- I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure "plenitude" and "plentitude" are just alternative spellings.

Anonymous said...

Why does the future have to be Christian?

And besides which Christians are a demographic minority in the world.

And what if universal cultural disintegration/destruction is the inevitable "late-time" manifestation of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project, including its self-serving so called religion.

And after all the West gave us WWI and WWII which effectively destroyed even the possibility of a truly hunanising global civilization. And which, it could be argued, were just minor preludes for the horrors to come

What also of the Hindu concept of Kali Yuga, according to which we are now in the very darkest phase.

Or the Mayan cosmological calendar and its associated prophecy which predicts that the year 2012 will be a major turning point in human culture and history. With the possibility of either all hell breaking loose or a positive global transformation. Depending on which we choose.

The election of McCain/Palin would not be the sign of even the possibility of a benign transformation. On the contrary it would just be an extension of the current (and always) psychosis---and even more so.

Anonymous said...

Post script.

No doubt many/most/all of Milbank's "orthodox" right-thinkeing fellow travellers who pretend to promote reason are rooting for a McCain/Palin Presidency.

But what Does Palin apppeal to?
Certainly not reason in any sense that it may have been promoted at the recent Rome talk-fest.

Raw primitive emotion.

Two books come to mind which discuss how right-wing USA politics really works----reason having nothing to do with it.

The Political Mind by George Lakoff

Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions That Matter In Right Wing America by Linda Kintz.

dpotter said...

I checked the OED, you're correct Ben. I should know that, but I wondered because part of my thesis deals with what is traditionally labeled 'the principle of plenitude' by earlier scholars. Since I've been doing a fair amount of editing lately, I noted the (nonexistent) discrepancy immediately.

BTW, great post Scott...I've been working on Pseudo-Dionysius' use of 'plenitude/plentitude' and Aquinas' use of Aristotle's horror vacui in their respective angelic hierarchies. I hadn't considered the implications for society and capitalism. If I could steer the discussion into a different alley for a minute, does anyone know if Neoplatonic theologians ever dealt with the question of 'too much'? Did such a category even exist? Thanks in advance...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the stimulating post, Scott. But I have to ask ...

It is obviously true that there is a dearth of dogmatics (or large-scale philosophical projects) on the contemporary intellectual landscape, though the names of Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson come to mind. But to claim that the preferential option for the essay suggests false modesty, insipidness, or a lack of ambition, let alone the absence of a grand and coherent vision, doesn't seem to me to be very plausible. Simply to "go on", as Barth did, may be a faithful and audacious thing to do. On the other hand, it may be indicative of denial, pig-headedness, stupidity, or even hubris.

It seems to me that there are times to build temples, and there are times - wildnerness times - to live in tents. In intellectual warfare, there are times to move around large armies, and there are times to be polemical terrorists and hit-and-run. Might not the projects of occasional theology - and the lean, mean essay, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee - now actually be the culturally appropriate revolutionary tactic against the strategic cumbersomeness (not to say obesity!) of systematics? To be specific, if you are right, what are we to make of the work - not only theologically dynamic but acutely critical of capitalism - of McCabe and Lash, Yoder and Hauerwas, and Rowan Williams? And though the future Professor Benjamin Myers may have a dogmatics inside of him, don't you just love the theological magpie who darts from Herbert and Milton, to Barth and Bultmann, to Dylan and Waits, to Zizek and Badiou?

Finally, I must say that, post- (and trans-) MacIntyre, your parting shot about "courageoulsy insisting on the universality of the European intellectual tradition and the primacy of reason" made me shiver with a concern well put by Vinoth Ramachandra in his recent Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World (2008):

"Why are North American or British or German theologies [and philosophies?] never named as such, but Indian or Latin American or African theologies are? Western theologies are simply assumed to be universal, but non-Western theologies are 'contextual.' The insularity of most Western theological institutions is astonishing."

Anonymous said...


Great points. I especially liked the quote at the end. So true.

Anonymous said...

As always, Kim, your considered interventions bring a broad smile to my dial. Two quick points in response (dear God, it's late!):

1) On the question of dogmatics as such, my concern is the self-congratulatory ubiquity of the 'minority report' which seems to anticipate and fully expect its own failure. Such things, as Alain Badiou put it, are already recognised within the intellectual ferment of late capitalism. This is something that both Jameson and MacIntyre have long recognised: the advantage of dialectical thinking was that it thought everything, and thus represented a critique both in substance and scope. The fragmentation of thought and moral vision, and thus the demise of the dialectic itself, isn't thinking's somewhat modest retreat back into its own confines, but rather a form of impairment. It is the impossibility of the Summa today that should make us long for it.

I, too, considered Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson, all of whose work I know extremely well - and they are precisely the examples that prove the rule. Jenson's Systematic Theology is a collection of topical interventions; Moltmann's work is exploratory and imaginative, but hardly consistent or rigorous (although, I'd say, quoting the rabbis, that the whole of 20th c. theology is not worth the day that The Crucified God came into being); and Pannenberg's most natural medium is that of a theological essayist (wasn't something lost in the transition from Basic Questions in Theology and Jesus - God and Man to his Systematic Theology?).

2) On European universalism: I've always love T.S. Eliot's description of Baudelaire as being universal precisely because of his complete and traumatic immersion in the Parisian life-world (which, of course, he in no small part created). Universality, as both Zizek and Badiou insist, has nothing to do with some deep, organic tie to one's culture or heritage, but rather signifies a kind of 'being-homeless'. It is a peering down into the void of the unjustifiability of our existence. Nothing either heroic or tragic here, but a deep ambivalence toward ones own cultural determinant; isn't there is a deep resonance with the experiences both of Paul and Qoheleth at this point?

Anonymous said...

It is a hallmark of our inability to even do dogmatics that we feel compelled to talk to, of, and about such figures.

Perhaps, as good as such reflections are, the most appropriate response is simply to do dogmatics, not go to Rome to make the case?

Anonymous said...

(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.)

Is this not a bit of a contradiction: that you make this statement, yet precede it by invoking Jean Baudrillard, one of the founding fathers of these two much (and unneccesarily) maligned disciplines? In addition, while you might say he was most interesting when he was most conservative, how is his statement neccesarily conservative? Plenty of Marxists or even liberals have said similar things. We are talking about the arch-nihilist here, who wrote On Nihilism and in it said "There is no more hope for meaning."?

Marty said...

Hey Scott, love ya work, but do you ever write something without an allusion to masturbation in it?

Marty Foord.

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