As some of you on Facebook might know, I am now at a conference in Oxford where I presented a paper on continental theorist Slavoj Žižek. For some, the name Žižek is unknown and yet in the philosophical community he is causing vibrant conversations that both infuriate and enliven debates on, well, just about everything.
My interest with Žižek is that as a leading Leftist theorist he seems to be one of the most astute defenders of Christianity working today. Granted, as a Lacanian Marxist some might expect a neo-Nietzschean or typical post-Marxist critique of Christianity. But Žižek doesn’t crush Christians with a Twilight of the Gods pounding of the Nietzschean hammer by dismissively erecting a straw man argument through neo-marxist rhetoric subscribing to Christians a ‘slave morality’ or becoming addicted to an ‘opiate for the masses’ then dismissing ‘faith’ with a wave of the hand (although he does do a lot of hand waving!). No, true belief is something Žižek is concerned about (more about that later).
According to Žižek, the misguided ethical convictions and corresponding lack of political courage to do what is good and right that forms the trends with today’s Western intellectual elites have facilitated the spread of a global corporatism that benefits a relatively small economic élite at the cost of the world’s oppressed masses. With a decidedly ironic twist, Žižek declares that the pharmacon (the Derridian cura anima that gives both life and death) needed to combat this exploitative New World Order is found in what (in The Puppet and the Dwarf) he calls “the perverse core of the Christian faith” which provides the remedy for the cultural malady that is postmodern ethical relativism. This perverse core is a deep concern for the material and the particular as the place of the universal ground for meaning. He essentially sees much of the crisis in our culture today as a crisis of true belief. As he puts it:
“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret. Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps. My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.” (Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 6)
Žižek identifies various contemporary methods of what some may consider belief in the 21st century – grounding concerns that range from Western forms of New Age paganism to deconstructionism – and sees many of these as merely flaccid and fainting wanderings that have little to no effect on how one lives in the world with courage and resolve and that fact that ultimately most people in Western culture believe in nothing except free market capitalism remains what he states in The Puppet and the Dwarf as a “private obscene secret” of our age.
One of the reasons for this “private obscene secret” in Western culture stems from the repose of Postmodern culture to keep everything at a distance and commit ourselves to only considered reflections of so-called belief not a material, embodied enactment that animates in lived experience. Žižek’s examples of this range from post-structural thinkers in the academy out of the Derridian and Levinasian schools who take the burden of belief off of themselves and place it on the never-ending search for “the Other” to those people in big popular media (think: television personalities with white boards ), mega church pastors of a certain stripe, and those privatized Bohemians at the coffee shop who frame the world with bracketed comments within scare quotes that feigns objectivity . Such groups, differing though they may seem, are in fact sharing a deep virus that has spread to both conservative and liberal wings. This is an inability to truly and completely live into belief. Although the groups will say that they are deeply self-reflexive and therefore needing to hold an objective view, Žižek zeroes in especially on the intellectual elites (yes… he is targeting the academy within which he receives large paychecks… but the man is not without irony) for an anti-foundationalism that constantly resists positing a conceptual totality on the grounds that such thinking risks becoming totalitarian. In short, people talk a lot, blog endlessly, fill our ears and eyes with media and after the tidal wave of information overload most people still lack a belief in anything that substantially effects their day-to-day lives other than the desire to shop. As a result of their supposed open-mindedness and egalitarian spirit, those in Western culture from the intellectual élite to the reality show celebrity to the Barista pulling your cappuccino this morning (these, by the way, are not mutually exclusive categories) neglect to take into account their unwillingness to subject themselves to a grounding fundamental belief.
Žižek cites New Age paganism in the Puppet and the Dwarf as merely seeing the universe as a ‘primal abyss in which all apparent opposites ultimately coincide’ – a view that offers no accountability for how one is to live in relation to other human beings nor the responsibility to do so. Those he calls ‘Deconstructionists’ after Derrida and Levinas are similar in that this class of intellectuals “has become almost the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today’s intellectuals… [grounding their views in] the assertion of Otherness leads to the boring, monotonous sameness of Otherness itself.” The so-called tolerant resolve whereby ‘otherness’ is held up as an unknowable alterity is a blanding of the particular and leaves people kept at arm’s length rather than embraced and results in all particular instances of the so-called other that arise in our day-to-day interactions with increasing globalization are just variations sameness, a Lockean tabula rasa that is beyond our comprehension to master and therefore we cannot offer opinion nor deep connection. In particular for Žižek is a concern for those who espouse multiculturalism as the highest ideal which when enacted as a call to stay open to a radical Otherness merely encourages passivity in our encounters with others that ultimately translates into political apathy or inaction. This, Žižek states in no uncertain terms, is about as far from true belief as we can get.
Where to I go with Žižek on all this? Well, probably to places he would find a bit too ‘touchy feely’ but still in line with large parts of his attempt to revive lost aspects of the Christian narrative. What the perverse core of Christianity as he describes it offers is a grand counter measure to these tendencies to abstraction and is a call to true belief that seeks after the particular to know the universal – that is to say, to have courage to live in relation to marginalized, the disenfranchised, the person who is our neighbor which purpose and resolve in a deeply real way. It means getting involved with each other, knowing our names, and drawing dangerously close in ways that can break our hearts and shatter our precious beliefs from time to time. In keeping the world abstracted and objective, we keep God at bay as well.