Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek masterclasses, and Jacques Lacan lecture

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities has been hosting some ‘Masterclasses’ with Slavoj Žižek. The three talks are available for download here:

Need more Žižek? There’s also an older talk:

Plus, here’s an interesting lecture (1971) by, and interviews with, Jacques Lacan in which he ruminates about language, death, faith, life, psychoanalysis, love, alienation, and paranoia:


Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.



Some Sat’day morning stuff

  • Ray S. Anderson on God’s Presence in Dying.
  • The ever-engaging Slavoj Žižek on ‘Are we living in the end times?’
  • David Bentley Hart on anarchism and monarchism: ‘The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot’.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is ‘a new Mandela’.
  • Byron Smith posts 12 responses to a series of converging crises in our economy, energy and ecology.
  • Ben Myers on smiling and sadness.
  • David Congdon negotiates his ecclesial identity.
  • Stanley Hauerwas writes an ‘open letter to young Christians on their way to college’.
  • Tomorrow, I will engage in my first (the first of many, to be sure!) real act of parental irresponsibility for Samuel: he will be placed on the road to (or in the river of) death and made an outlaw; i.e., he will, in Kim Fabricius’ words, ‘enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian’. He will enter the castra caelestia. Exhausted by the event, he’ll then come home and sleep, or that’s the plan anyway.
  • BTW: I’m not sure what significance I should attach to it, if any, but this is my 1500th post.

There he goes, tacking against the fields’ uneasy tides …

[Image: Members of the staff of the Bank of New Zealand, on Lambton and Customhouse Quays, Wellington, gather around the first electronic book-keeping machine installed in the bank, 1960. HT: National Library of New Zealand]

‘Piping songs of peasant glee’: Around the aether

Slavoj Žižek on Haiti

Back on 14 August 2008, Slavoj Žižek reviewed Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, a review I thought worth reposting, particurlarly in light of recent tragedies effecting a country which otherwise hardly rates a mention in public discourse and the subsequent rhetoric of victimhood.

‘Noam Chomsky once noted that “it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated”. He thereby pointed at the “passivising” core of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the direct political self- organisation and self-empowerment of the people. Direct colonial aggression or military assault are not the only ways of pacifying a “hostile” population: so long as they are backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force, international “stabilisation” missions can overcome the threat of popular participation through the apparently less abrasive tactics of “democracy promotion”, “humanitarian intervention” and the “protection of human rights”.

This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of the “democratic containment” of Haiti’s radical politics in the past two decades, “never have the well-worn tactics of ‘democracy promotion’ been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004”. One cannot miss the irony of the fact that the name of the emancipatory political movement which suffered this international pressure is Lavalas, or “flood” in Creole: it is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated communities that protect those who exploit them. This is why the title of Hallward’s book is quite appropriate, inscribing the events in Haiti into the global tendency of new dams and walls that have been popping out everywhere since 11 September 2001, confronting us with the inner truth of “globalisation”, the underlying lines of division which sustain it.

Haiti was an exception from the very beginning, from its revolutionary fight against slavery, which ended in independence in January 1804. “Only in Haiti,” Hallward notes, “was the declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in Haiti was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and economic logic of the day.” For this reason, “there is no single event in the whole of modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global order of things”. The Haitian Revolution truly deserves the title of repetition of the French Revolution: led by Toussaint ‘Ouverture, it was clearly “ahead of his time”, “premature” and doomed to fail, yet, precisely as such, it was perhaps even more of an event than the French Revolution itself. It was the first time that an enslaved population rebelled not as a way of returning to their pre-colonial “roots”, but on behalf of universal principles of freedom and equality. And a sign of the Jacobins’ authenticity is that they quickly recognised the slaves’ uprising – the black delegation from Haiti was enthusiastically received in the National Assembly in Paris. (As you might expect, things changed after Thermidor; in 1801 Napoleon sent a huge expeditionary force to try to regain control of the colony).

Denounced by Talleyrand as “a horrible spectacle for all white nations”, the “mere existence of an independent Haiti” was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price – the literal price – for the “premature” independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as “compensation” for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti’s payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black Americans for slavery, Haiti’s demand to be reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.

The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people’s direct self-organisation. Although the “free press” dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a “normal” democracy – a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.

It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil’s Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator – an alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored “democratic fronts” to humanitarian NGOs and even some “radical left” organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide’s “capitulation” to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between radical left and liberal right: “Somewhere, somehow, there’s a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you to say.”

The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas activists didn’t withdraw into the interstices of state power and “resist” from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist “modernisation” and “structural readjustment”, but also of the postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined to enact “necessary structural readjustments”, Aristide pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures (building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate foes – the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.

The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the thing that earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and Pol Pot, was his pointed refusal to condemn measures taken by the people to defend themselves against military or paramilitary assault, an assault that had decimated the popular movement for decades. On a couple of occasions back in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse to the most notorious of these measures, known locally as “Père Lebrun”, a variant of the practice of “necklacing” adopted by anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa – killing a police assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a speech on 4 August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd to remember “when to use [Père Lebrun], and where to use it”, while reminding them that “you may never use it again in a state where law prevails”.

Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between the so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence groups, and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous gangs of the Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is no numerical basis for comparison of levels of political violence under Aristide and under Duvalier is not allowed to get in the way of the essential political point. Asked about these chimères, Aristide points out that “the very word says it all. Chimères are people who are impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence [. . .] It’s not surprising that they should confront those who have always benefited from this same social violence.”

Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called “divine violence”: they should be located “beyond good and evil”, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what can only appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.

As Aristide himself puts it: “It is better to be wrong with the people than to be right against the people.” Despite some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of the figures of how “dictatorship of the proletariat” might look today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained faithful to its “base”, to the crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not “representing” them but directly relying on their local self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our “postmodern” terms: the struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic “agonistic pluralism”.

This is why Hallward’s outstanding book is not just about Haiti, but about what it means to be a “leftist” today: ask a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants “globalisation with a human face”‘.

[Source: New Statesman]

For those who may wish to do more than just read an old book review, here’s a wee list of (mostly American) groups seeking to respond to the needs of Haitians at the moment, all of whom would be pleased to have your support:

And for those of us who pray, Rose Marie Berger has penned the following ‘Prayer for Haiti (January 2010)’ to help us:

Most Holy Creator God, Lord of heaven and earth,
we bring before you today your people of Haiti.
It is you who set in motion the stars and seas, you who
raised up the mountains of the Massif de la Hotte and Pic La Selle.
It is you who made her people in your very image:
Their gregarious hearts, generous spirits,
their hunger and thirst for righteousness and liberty.
It is you, O Lord, who planted the rhythms of konpa, Twoubadou,
and zouk in the streets of Cite-Soleil. You who walk the paths
outside of Jacmel and Hinche. Your people, O Lord, cry out to you.

Haiti, O Haiti: the world’s oldest black republic,
the second-oldest republic in the Western world.
You are a God who answers the cries of the suffering.
You are a God who sees, frees, and redeems your people.
“I too have heard the moaning of my people,” you spoke to Moses. Now, Lord, speak to Chanté, Agwe, Nadege, and Jean Joseph.
Speak now, O Lord, and comfort Antoine, Jean-Baptiste,
Toto, and Djakout. Raise up your people from the ash heap
of destruction and give them strong hearts and hands,
shore up their minds and spirits. Help them to bear this new burden.

As for us, Lord, we who are far away from the rubble and the dust, the sobbing and the moans, but who hold them close in our hearts, embue us with the strength of Simon the Cyrene.
Help us to carry the Haitian cross; show us how to lighten the yoke with our prayers, our aid, our resources. Teach us to work harder
for justice in our own country and dignity in Haiti,
so that we may stand with integrity when we hold our Haitian families in our arms once again. We ask this in the name of Jezikri, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Slavoj Žižek on ‘The Death of God’ (AAR Annual Meeting 2009)

Slavoj Žižek‘s presentation on ‘The Death of God’, given at the recent AAR meeting, is worth watching [HT: to CT Moore], especially for those unfamiliar with Žižek’s atheistic sterilization of the centre of Hegel’s attention to the kenotic reality witnessed to in the gospel. Strange, then, that apart from Adam’s lament of Zizek’s predictable ‘long-windedness’ (a post, by the way, which includes some great discussion and a link to Kotsko’s own article ‘Politics and Perversion: Situating Žižek’s Paul’) I’ve heard/read very little about this session. Anyone who was present at that session care to remedy this for us?

Here’s a snippert: ‘Not only is atheism the truth of Christianity but one can only be a true atheist by passing through the Christian experience. All other atheisms continue to rely on some form of the Big Other’.

Žižek on Apocalypse, on the Future, and on Obama

In an earlier post, I suggested that few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, but that his analyses of history’s big movements nevertheless remain insightful, often compelling, and usually fascinating. I’ve received a bit of e-flack for reading (and posting on) Žižek, but let me say again that I don’t draw attention to Žižek’s work because I agree with all his conclusions, or with how he gets there. Rather, I read Žižek for many of the same reasons that I read from traditions and centuries other than my own – because I’m grateful for anyone who helps me to think differently about the world, and to ask some different questions about reality and human experience than does the literature I most typically immerse myself in. Apart from all that, reading Žižek is, at times, just such great fun. [Who is this idiot blogger, i.e. me, who feels the need to defend his own reading habits!]

Anyway, that said, here’s more from Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce; this time, on Apocalypse:

‘Apocalypse is characterized by a specific mode of time, clearly opposed to the two other predominant modes: traditional circular time (time ordered and regulated on cosmic principles, reflecting the order of nature and the heavens; the time-form in which microcosm and macrocosm resonate in harmony), and the modern linear time of gradual progress or development. Apocalyptic time is the “time of the end of time,” the time of emergency, of the “state of exception” when the end is nigh and we can only prepare for it. There are at least four different versions of apocalyptism today: Christian fundamentalism, New Age spirituality, techno-digital post-humanism, and secular ecologism. Although they all share the basic notion that humanity is approaching a zero-point of radical transmutation, their respective ontologies differ radically: Techno-digital apocalyptism … remains within the confines of scientific naturalism, and discerns in the evolution of human species the contours of our transformation into “post-humans.” New Age spirituality gives this transmutation a further twist, interpreting it as the shift from one mode of “cosmic awareness” to another (usually a shift from the modern dualist-mechanistic stance to one of holistic immersion). Christian fundamentalists of course read the apocalypse in strictly biblical terms, that is, they search for (and find) in the contemporary world signs that the final battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ is imminent. Finally, secular ecologism shares the naturalist stance of post-humanism, but gives it a negative twist-what lies ahead, the “omega point” we are approaching, is not a progression to a higher “post-human” level, but the catastrophic self-destruction of humanity. Although Christian fundamentalist apocalyptism is considered the most ridiculous, and dangerous, in its content, it remains the version closest to a radical “milenarian” emancipatory logic. The task is thus to bring it into closer contact with secular ecologism, thereby conceiving the threat of annihilation as the chance for a radical emancipatory renewal’. (pp. 93–4)

So what future does Žižek look to?

‘The future will be Hegelian … The only true alternative that awaits us – the alternative between socialism and communism – is the alternative between the two Hegels’.

Žižek contrasts Hegel’s ‘conservative’ vision (which points forward to what Žižek describes as ‘capitalism with Asian values’, as ‘a capitalist civil society organized into estates and kept in check by a strong authoritarian state with managerial “public servants” and traditional values’; he suggests that modern Japan comes close to this model), with the young Hegelianism evidenced in Haiti. He suggests: ‘It is as if the split into Old and Young Hegelians is to be re-enacted once again’. (p. 148)

He continues:

But what are the chances for an Hegelian Left today? Can we count only on momentary utopian explosions – like the Paris Commune, the Canudos settlement in Brazil, or the Shanghai Commune – which dissolve because of brutal external suppression or internal weaknesses, fated to remain no more than brief diversions from the main trajectory of History? Is communism then condemned to remain the utopian Idea of another possible world, an Idea whose realization necessarily ends in failure or self- destructive terror? Or should we remain heroically faithful to the Benjaminian project of the final Revolution that will redeem-through-repetition all past defeats, a day of full Reckoning? Or, more radically, should we change the field entirely, recognizing that the alternatives just proposed simply represent two sides of the same coin, that is, of the teleological-redemptive notion of history? Perhaps the solution resides in an eschatological apocalyptism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment in which all past accounts will be settled; to refer to another of Benjamin’s metaphors, the task is “merely” to stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice. (Communism is thus not the light at the end of the tunnel, that is, the happy final outcome of a long and arduous struggle – if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel is rather that of another train approaching us at full speed.) This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress. In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other … (pp. 148–9)

And, in another place, Žižek offers the following reflection/commentary on ‘Obama’s victory’:

‘One can and should entertain cynical doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will turn out to be a “Bush with a human face” making no more than a few minor face-lifting improvements. He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus possibly even strengthen US hegemony, damaged as it has been by the catastrophe of the Bush years. There is nonetheless something deeply wrong in such a reaction – a key dimension is missing. It is in light of the Kantian conception of enthusiasm that Obama’s victory should be viewed not simply as another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all its pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came through of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, for that instant of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm was not only the fact that, against all the odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing happening was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures – recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the communist regimes, we somehow did not “really believe” that they would disintegrate – like Henry Kissinger, we were all too much victims of a cynical pragmatism. This attitude is best encapsulated by the French expression je sais bien, mais quand même – I know very well that it can happen, but all the same (I cannot really accept that it will happen). This is why, although Obama’s victory was clearly predictable, at least for the last two weeks before the election, his actual victory was still experienced as a surprise – in some sense, the unthinkable had happened, something which we really did not believe could happen. (Note that there is also a tragic version of the unthinkable really taking place: the Holocaust, the Gulag … how can one accept that something like that could happen?)

This is also how one should answer those who point to all the compromises Obama had to make to become electable. The danger Obama courted in his campaign is that he was already applying to himself what the later historical censorship applied to Martin Luther King, namely, cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his eligibility. There is a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, set in Palestine at the time of Christ: the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that the Romans have brought only misery to the Jews; when his followers remark that they have nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, and so on, he triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Do the latest proclamations by Obama not follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics! OK, I pleaded for full support for Israel, for continuing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for refusing prosecutions against those who ordered torture, and so on, but I still stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics!” Obama’s inauguration speech concluded this process of “political self-cleansing” – which is why it was such a disappointment even for many left-liberals in the US. It was a well-crafted but weirdly anemic speech whose message to “all other peoples and governments who are watching today” was: “we are ready to lead once more”; “we will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”

During the election campaign, it was often noted that when Obama talked about the “audacity of hope,” about a change we can believe in, he relied on a rhetoric which lacked any specific content: to hope for what? To change what? Now things are a little clearer: Obama proposes a tactical change destined to reassert the fundamental goals of US politics: the defense of the American way of life and a leading role internationally for the US. The US empire will be now more humane, and respectful of others; it will lead through dialogue, rather than through the brutal imposition of its will. If the Bush administration was the empire with a brutal face, now we shall have the empire with a human face – but it will be the same empire. In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he tried to reach out to the Muslim world, he formulated the debate in terms of the depoliticized dialogue of religions (not even of civilizations) – this was Obama at his politically-correct worst’. (pp. 107–9)

Slavoj Žižek on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left

With my lectures for next two weeks (basically) written, I’ve turned to some fun reading: namely, Slavoj Žižek’s latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. It’s an unsurprisingly-passionate critique of contemporary capitalism post the recent so-called financial crash. While few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, his analyses of the big movements are very insightful, often compelling, and nearly always worth reflecting on – if for no other reason than that no-one quite says it like Žižek. Here he is on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left:

‘A true Left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions, but as something inevitable, as a chance to be fully exploited. The basic insight of the radical Left is that although crises are painful and dangerous they are ineluctable, and that they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. The difference between liberalism and the radical Left is that, although they refer to the same three elements (liberal center, populist Right, radical Left), they locate them in a radically different topology: for the liberal center, the radical Left and the Right are two forms of the same “totalitarian” excess; while for the Left, the only true alternative is the one between itself and the liberal mainstream, the populist “radical” Right being nothing but the symptom of liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat. When today we hear a politician or an ideologist offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, triumphantly asking (purely rhetorical) questions such as “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocker of religion to be punishable by death?” what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer – who would have wanted that? The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. This is why, for a true Leftist, the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle in which two opposed poles generate and presuppose each other. Here one should take an Hegelian step backwards, placing in question the very measure from which fundamentalism appears in all its horror. Liberals have long ago lost their right to judge. What Horkheimer once said should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk (critically) about liberal democracy and its noble principles should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism. And, even more pointedly, one should emphatically insist that the conflict between the State of Israel and the Arabs is a false conflict: even if we will all come to perish because of it, it is a conflict which only mystifies the true issues.

How are we to understand this reversal of an emancipatory thrust into fundamentalist populism? In authentic Marxism, totality is not an ideal, but a critical notion-to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include within a system all its “symptoms:’ it antagonisms and inconsistencies, as integral parts. In this sense then, liberalism and fundamentalism form a “totality:’ for their opposition is structured so that liberalism itself generates its opposite. Where then do the core values of liberalism – freedom, equality, etc. – stand? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save its own core values from the fundamentalist onslaught. Its problem is that it cannot stand on its own: there is something missing in the liberal edifice. Liberalism is, in its very notion, “parasitic” relying as it does on a presupposed network of communal values that it undermines in the course of its own development. Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystificatory reaction of course – against a real flaw inherent within liberalism, and this is why fundamentalism is, over and again, generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself – the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left. Or, to put it in the well-known terms of 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism will need the brotherly help of the radical Left’. – Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London/New York: Verso, 2009), 75–77.

Slavoj Žižek on capitalism, communism and anti-Communism in Post-Wall Eastern Europe

Zizek 2The latest LRB includes a fascinating reflection on capitalism, communism and anti-Communism in Post-Wall Eastern Europe by Slavoj Žižek. It’s well worth reading the whole piece, but here’s the conclusion:

… maybe post-Communist disappointment should not be dismissed as a sign of ‘immature’ expectations. When people protested against Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, most of them weren’t asking for capitalism. They wanted solidarity and a rough kind of justice; they wanted the freedom to live their own lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted to be liberated from primitive ideological indoctrination and hypocrisy. In effect they aspired to something that could best be described as ‘socialism with a human face’. Perhaps this sentiment deserves a second chance.

On a somewhat related issue, Jim posted recently on The Berlin Wall as symbol of the Gospel and I found this conversation on Germany, Guilt, Identity, and Memory really interesting.

The Poetry of Care and Loss

davisDoing the rounds this week:

  • Ellen Davis presented her inaugural lecture as the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology on October 27, 2009, at Duke Divinity School. The title of the lecture was ‘The Poetry of Care and Loss’. It is available via iTunes.
  • The Thailand Burma Border Consortium compares Eastern Burma to Darfur.
  • Julian Bell reviews Vincent van Gogh – The Letters (now we just need Thames & Hudson to review the price!).
  • A fascinating interview with Slavoj Žižek: ‘… it’s very easy to have a radical position which costs you nothing and for the price of nothing it gives you some kind of moral superiority. It also enables them to avoid the truly difficult questions’.
  • Andrew Brower Latz continues his note sharing on Alan Torrance’s 2009 Didsbury Lectures (Parts I, II and III).
  • Jim Gordon reminds us why reading Bonhoeffer is ‘like engaging in a theological detox programme’.
  • Kyle Strobel writes about Evangelical Idolatry.
  • Rick Floyd posts on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
  • W. Travis McMaken, on his way into his final qualifying exam in systematic theology, shares a quote from TF Torrance on modern preaching and the god named ‘existentialist decision’.

The Revd Clarence Arthur Wilmot on Presbyterianism … and America

Updike - Beauty of the Lilies‘What all the genteel professors at Princeton Seminary had smilingly concealed, Warfield and Green and the erect, pedantic rest, and the embowering trees and Gothic buildings had in their gracious silence masked, was the possibility that this was all about nothing, all these texts and rites and volumes and exegeses and doctrinal splits (within Scots Presbyterianism alone, the Cameronians, the Burghers Antiburghers, the Auld Lichts and New, the Relief Church and the United Sucession Church, the United Free Church and the Free Church and the further seceding “Wee Frees”) – that all these real-enough historical entities might be twigs of an utterly dead tree, ramifications of no more objective validity than the creeds of the Mayan and Pharaonic and Polynesian priesthoods, and Presbyterianism right back to its Biblical roots one more self-promoting, self-protective tangle of wishful fancy and conscious lies’. – John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996), 18–19).

It is the pouring out of such language that leads Frank Kermode , in a scintillating review, to suggest not merely that In the Beauty of the Lilies is ‘a novel planned with much care’, but also that ‘Updike is almost alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to study this state of dull spiritual privation, what used to be called wanhope; or at any rate to study it in a religious, quasi-theological context. He alone would seek the origins of Clarence’s discomfiture in German Higher Criticism: Semler and Eichhorn, Baur and Welhausen, Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, all those learned Christians who ‘undermined Christianity’s supporting walls and beams’’.

Kermode continues:

Underneath the busy surface there is Updike’s permanent preoccupation with the vagaries of the spirit in ex-Puritan America. The careful abundance of the writing testifies to his love and admiration for the daily beauties and oddities of American life, past and present, but the deep structures suggest sadness and disappointment. Something serious has been lost or at any rate eroded, a seriousness of intellect but also of spirit. A sign of the degeneration is the difference between Clarence’s religious life and the later fundamentalism accepted by Clark, a doctrine that cuts off all serious thinking at the root.

In the Beauty of the Lilies captivates no less on the second read. Speaking of which, my copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Home arrived today. So excited.

BTW: While I’m drawing attention to London Review of Books, readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may be interested in a recent piece therein by Slavoj Žižek on ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’.

A Q&A with Slavoj Žižek

When were you happiest?

A few times when I looked forward to a happy moment or remembered it – never when it was happening.

What is your greatest fear?

To awaken after death – that’s why I want to be burned immediately.

What is your earliest memory?

My mother naked. Disgusting.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Indifference to the plights of others.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Their sleazy readiness to offer me help when I don’t need or want it.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Standing naked in front of a woman before making love.

Aside from a property, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?

The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.

What is your most treasured possession?

See the previous answer.

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it makes me appear the way I really am.

What is your most unappealing habit?

The ridiculously excessive tics of my hands while I talk.

What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?

A mask of myself on my face, so people would think I am not myself but someone pretending to be me.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching embarrassingly pathetic movies such as The Sound Of Music.

What do you owe your parents?

Nothing, I hope. I didn’t spend a minute bemoaning their death.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?

To my sons, for not being a good enough father.

What does love feel like?

Like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.

What or who is the love of your life?

Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

What is your favourite smell?

Nature in decay, like rotten trees.

Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it?

All the time. When I really love someone, I can only show it by making aggressive and bad-taste remarks.

Which living person do you most despise, and why?

Medical doctors who assist torturers.

What is the worst job you’ve done?

Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

What Alain Badiou calls the ‘obscure disaster’ of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?

My birth. I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born – but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

To Germany in the early 19th century, to follow a university course by Hegel.

How do you relax?

Listening again and again to Wagner.

How often do you have sex?

It depends what one means by sex. If it’s the usual masturbation with a living partner, I try not to have it at all.

What is the closest you’ve come to death?

When I had a mild heart attack. I started to hate my body: it refused to do its duty to serve me blindly.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

To avoid senility.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The chapters where I develop what I think is a good interpretation of Hegel.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.

Tell us a secret.

Communism will win.

[Source: The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008. Interview by Rosanna Greenstreet]

Slavoj Žižek and Hans Blix on Iraq, US Foreign Policy and Global Nuclear Bans

Recently Amy Goodman (leading reporter for Democracy Now) interviewed Slavoj Žižek on the Iraq War, the Bush Presidency, the War on Terror & More.

Part One: Transcript; Video; MP3

Part Two: Transcript; Video; MP3

Also, former Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix (who is always great to listen to … if only more did!) talks about the USs Rush to War in Iraq, the Threat of an Attack on Iran, and the Need for a Global Nuclear Ban to Avoid Further Catastrophe.

Transcript; Video; MP3

Žižek on transcendent meaning, authority and freedom

Commenting on Job’s three theological friends, Slavoj Žižek contends that ‘God is the only true materialist … [God] comes and says there is no transcendent meaning, everything is a miracle … there is no transcendent master, which is why I think we have to read Christ as a repetition of Job. What dies on the cross with Christ? What dies is not an earthly representative of a transcendent. What dies is precisely God as this transcendent master of the universe. What dies on the cross for me is the idea of God as the ultimate guarantee of meaning … The lesson of Christianity … of Christ … [is that] we cannot afford this withdrawal. When we are confronted with horrible things … holocaust, concentration camps or other similar catastrophes it is a little bit vulgar to say, “This only appears to us as a catastrophe because of your limited perspective, withdrawal back and you will see how it contributes to harmony, or whatever”. There is no big other! This is why I think this would be a kind of more materialist reading why Christ truly sacrificed himself. The message is “All we can do is here”; there is no father up there who takes care of it … It is not “Trust God”. No. God trusts us. All that can be done, we should do it. In this sense, with this incomplete notion of reality, … it opens up the space for freedom. There is freedom only in an ontologically unfinished reality’.

While I generally do find Žižek to be a really stimulating thinker, what I find most disturbing here in this particular presentation is his notion of authority and freedom. To be sure, he never seems to challenge the relative need of authority in the area of sociality. However, if I have heard him correctly (and it’s a genuine ‘if’ on my part) when he comes to the purlieus of belief, of faith, the assumption is that we must abandon authority. It is at this point (though not at this point alone) that he so clearly betrays a failure to understand what constitutes a Christian notion of authority. For Žižek, authority is not a power but a force, a coercive burden to be shaken off rather than a love and true freedom to live in. Employing Forsyth here, I want to suggest that Žižek’s notion of authority is not ‘the source of liberty, but its load. It is something which sooner or later must produce impatience and not bring peace. It is something to be renounced as men pass to spiritual maturity. The more spiritual they consider themselves, the less they like to feel, think, or speak of authority’. There is no sense in Žižek’s notion of authority of one who employs his authority to set people – indeed his enemies – free.

Truly, ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor 1:28). This one who though he was in the form of God became the ‘low and despised’ one taught us that ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:43-45).

In this alone is true creaturely freedom. To assert, a Žižek does, that freedom exists ‘only in an ontologically unfinished reality’ is to deny the incarnation of God into our world, and the (cruci)-form that such authority takes. There is no greater freedom than to live under true authority. This is our gifted freedom. If God is creator, not merely in the sense of being the one who began all things but also in the decisive sense of being one who sustains all things from moment to moment by his gracious will then we must confess that no freedom exists apart from him. As C. Stephen Evans notes in his delightful book, Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, ‘Because of God man is something; he is in fact a nobel something, created for eternal life with God. But his nobility lies precisely in his ability freely to recognize or fail to recognize his dependence on God. This freedom means that man is to an extent independent of God. But even his independence is itself dependent upon God’s creative power, most properly used when man recognizes – freely – his dependence’. (p. 170)

(If I have read Žižek incorrectly here, I apologise. Please take this as an invitation to help me try and understand this important thinker rightly on this point.)

Resistance Is Surrender

Today’s London Review of Books includes a provocative and challenging (for all who value democracy) essay by Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek entitled ‘Resistance Is Surrender’. I reproduce it here:

One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. It might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).

Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.

Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’

Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.

Or, it emphasises the fact that the problem is a more fundamental one, that global capitalism is ultimately an effect of the underlying principles of technology or ‘instrumental reason’.

Or, it posits that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse (the exemplar of this approach is the Zapatista movement).

Or, it takes the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive re-articulation.

Or, it wagers that one can repeat at the postmodern level the classical Marxist gesture of enacting the ‘determinate negation’ of capitalism: with today’s rise of ‘cognitive work’, the contradiction between social production and capitalist relations has become starker than ever, rendering possible for the first time ‘absolute democracy’ (this would be Hardt and Negri’s position).

These positions are not presented as a way of avoiding some ‘true’ radical Left politics – what they are trying to get around is, indeed, the lack of such a position. This defeat of the Left is not the whole story of the last thirty years, however. There is another, no less surprising, lesson to be learned from the Chinese Communists’ presiding over arguably the most explosive development of capitalism in history, and from the growth of West European Third Way social democracy. It is, in short: we can do it better. In the UK, the Thatcher revolution was, at the time, chaotic and impulsive, marked by unpredictable contingencies. It was Tony Blair who was able to institutionalise it, or, in Hegel’s terms, to raise (what first appeared as) a contingency, a historical accident, into a necessity. Thatcher wasn’t a Thatcherite, she was merely herself; it was Blair (more than Major) who truly gave form to Thatcherism.

The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left.

Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding, is an almost perfect embodiment of this position. For Critchley, the liberal-democratic state is here to stay. Attempts to abolish the state failed miserably; consequently, the new politics has to be located at a distance from it: anti-war movements, ecological organisations, groups protesting against racist or sexist abuses, and other forms of local self-organisation. It must be a politics of resistance to the state, of bombarding the state with impossible demands, of denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms. The main argument for conducting the politics of resistance at a distance from the state hinges on the ethical dimension of the ‘infinitely demanding’ call for justice: no state can heed this call, since its ultimate goal is the ‘real-political’ one of ensuring its own reproduction (its economic growth, public safety, etc). ‘Of course,’ Critchley writes,

‘history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes’.

So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it? And what would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler? Surely in such a case one should ‘mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty’ one opposes? Shouldn’t the Left draw a distinction between the circumstances in which one would resort to violence in confronting the state, and those in which all one can and should do is use ‘mocking satire and feather dusters’? The ambiguity of Critchley’s position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way? Why limit oneself to a politics which, as Critchley puts it, ‘calls the state into question and calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect’?

These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.