What is Milbank?: Repudiated

I’ve repudiated this.

‘It is not enough that we are all ‘anti-capitalist’: we are not the same kind of anti-capitalists as you, ‘sir’, nor will we ever be!’ This is the verdict that infinite thought gives concerning John Milbank’s latest public paper at Birkbeck’s ridiculously priced ‘Materialism Today’ conference. (Dear Zizek – if you have are charging $140 for a two day conference supposedly in the spirit of Lenin, then something is very wrong.) Prior to her verdict she reads out the charge, ‘The Materialism conference was fundamentally flawed and floored by fundamentalists – Christian of course: John Milbank’s weird Daily Mail-ish clerical Schmittian fantasy for a Feudal nationalism delivered in a bellowing windbaggish way was deeply reactionary and a pompous flirtation with fascism.’

John Milbank as Christian fundamentalist? Those of us in the religious studies and theology world should find this funny. Milbank’s paper, “Politics of Resurrection: Paul versus Biopolitics”, if it follows the longer online paper, begins with a few insults towards fundamentalist wings of Christianity and their support of capitalism. This is a familiar trope in his work, but of course the debate could come down to what one’s definition of a fundamentalist is. For Milbank one can be orthodox without being fundamentalist; in fact one’s orthodoxy is posited in part by one’s rejection of fundamentalism! Fundamentalism, Milbank tells us, is on the same level with agnosticism – it is a refusal of metaphysics. A somewhat enigmatic reading of the history of thought, but one that is just as challenging and potentially fruitful as Badiou’s reading of Paul.

I’m not going to post a full apologia for Milbank. While he is one of my professors and has helped me to understand a few things, I am not one of his acolytes. He is certainly the most interesting and challenging Anglophone Christian theologian today and I do think, if we want to understand the current theologico-political situation, we have to listen to theologians as well as to philosophers and sociologists. Perhaps we ignore this particular windbag at our own peril, but he certainly makes it easy for the secularists to do so. I do find the Milbank phenomenon to be as interesting as the Zizek one. The myriad of interpretations of ‘what’ he is never ceases to surprise me. To many fundamentalists and religious neo-conservatives he is a far left lunatic and to many on the Left he is a raging, homophobic, advocate of fascist monoculture. This is actually why I like the man, even though I often find myself being very exasperated and angry after our discussions (and sometimes quite elated and intellectually satisfied). The man is a monster of the best kind.ric

60 thoughts on “What is Milbank?: Repudiated

  1. To add a brief addition to this post, I am more one of Milbank’s acolytes than you, but just incase anyone doesn’t get the irony – he is far less of a fascist homophobe (infact he isn’t either at all) and far more of a far left Ruskin-esque lunatic!

  2. I took from Milbank’s paper the following four points.

    1) Anti-capitalism.

    2) Anti-modern, embrace of the middle ages.

    3) Organicist conception of society.

    4) Support for the fuhrer principle.

    To my mind, this equals fascism.

    How am I wrong?

  3. i anticipate that characterizations like these will haunt Milbank for a long time, but I understand it as little more than rhetorical blowback for his polemical treatment of everyone else. I think what he has to say is often times interesting, but I am unsure if this content can be separated from the form in which it is conveyed (I am not so sure if this is not just the result of the logic of heresiology). So, I am not so sure that this “blowback” is unfortunate or avoidable. At this point, I am disinclined to engage his work (though I actually have much to say about it) as it seems that the manner in which he frames debates is utterly problematic. There do seem to be others, however, who maybe share some of the same insights, but who are not caught up in the same extremes (which, perhaps, would make them less orthodox).

  4. Daniel,

    Well he is anti-capitalist. He does deeply celebrate the middle ages, but it’s a strange middle ages he is thinking of and hardly fascistic. His organicism is more akin to Spinoza’s or, ironically, the Russian Sophiologists than what I think you are suggesting. Furthermore not every organicism is fascist. It depends on the understanding of the organism. This is just a stupidity within ‘Marxist’ discourses that often leads to an outright rejection of ecology and environmental issues. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about with regard to the fuhrer principle, but I’ve never seen that in John. If anything John is one of the least fascistic instructors I’ve ever had and really does let his students go wild with their papers. He does, like Hallward, think there has to be some kind of structure in place to resist capitalism. Are you also calling this a fuhrer principle in Hallward, or is it only a fuhrer principle because John is a theologian?

    I’m sorry, but I think you have all misunderstood him. There are certainly issues I expected your crew to have with his work, but calling him a fascist just seems kind of silly and really ignores the bulk of his work. Granted his delivery is often over the top, often trading in hyperbole in the same way that Zizek does, and this can lead to real misunderstandings.


    Perhaps. I don’t know, it is your choice, but I would be far less worried to engage with him. You just have to realize that he gets real enjoyment out of debate. Not unlike our friend Dr. thought.

  5. One other thing:

    BT has really fucked up on getting my internet running at my new flat. So I am not able to moderate the comments as quickly as I would like. If your comment doesn’t appear for the rest of the night, that may be why. Adam, I think, is busy so he likely can’t catch them all. If he does, great, and you should thank him. If not, I’ll get them tomorrow.

  6. i am not concerned about the backlash of the person, but am rather concerned that to enter into the fray without being careful. That is, it becomes easy to fall into an exclusionary and wreckless mud-slinging, which thereby wins him the point, as the form will shape whatever content I try to insert.

  7. Milbank’s anti-capitalism is naturally going to get the goat of anyone with a Marxist leaning (or materialist leaning) since it is broadly communitarian, after Macintyre and Catholic Leftist thought, although he critiques communitarians in a number of ways. As for an embrace of the middle ages, I don’t think John wants to return to them, not even in a nostalgic mode. Rather, he attempts 1) to consider the line of flight politically/socially/economically if certain theological/philosophical moves had not been made (by Scotus for example) as a form of alternative history, and more importantly, 2) repeats (in a non-identical repitition) the insights of Early and Medieval Christianity which might solve some of our political aporias. Asked one to one, he would certainly never call for a return to the middle ages.I think he has very little respect for the state and following Ruskin and William Morris (and maybe Hardt and Negri) believes in a kind of anarchic socialism from below. One that is an ecnonomy based on gift exchange more than anything else. See http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=76 .

    in other words, communities if you like of small communities, or interlocking communities of something like total formation, if you like to put it that way, where you’re concerned with producing material things but at the same time you’re trying to promote spiritual ends and ecological ends and educative ends. So in a way we need to abolish the idea that there is an economic realm—a pure, sheerly economic realm simply concerned with producing wealth. And this is an idea that very much was brought forward already in the 19th century in Britain by John Ruskin: the idea that the division of wealth that you get within capitalism is a false idea of wealth—it’s not real wealth in the sense of real flourishing, it’s something abstract, and we need an economy that’s concerned with real flourishing.

    Which is, quite honestly, what I believe.

    In other anti-capitalist news I am not sufficently anti-capitalist to not love the fact I can make the comment box as big or small as I like in the new Safari.

  8. There’s an interesting tangent to be explored here, which is that some quite significant strands of the late C19th and early C20th “left” were pretty communitarian/agrarian (as well as being into such delightful schemes for social improvement as, er, eugenics). The thing I think I really didn’t get about the poet Geoffrey Hill when I was studying him is that his politics is also basically of that kind – to the modern ear he sounds very “left” on some things and abominably “right” on others, but where he’s really coming from is some sort of weird counter-factual reactionary-utopian position that hardly exists any more. Maybe RO is also a counter-factual reactionary-utopianism…

  9. Umm… maybe. I don’t know that it’s reactionary or counter-factual. It certainly doesn’t advocate eugenics!

    I love that the immediate intutition is that it must be reactionary! It must be wrong!

  10. The allergic / immunological-overdrive reaction to Milbank is worthy of study in itself. I wasn’t there, and haven’t yet finished reading my way through the paper you linked to, so I don’t really have a view on this. Really I’d like to see Daniel and IT flesh out their objections, which presumably were intellectual as well as visceral. I do have a slight feeling of dread that all this heralds a cataclysmic blogospheric schism, though…

  11. I’m sure they do have intellectual objections! But the ones they’ve presented are, to my mind, ignorant of his work. There are some objections I’m guessing will come, but I just think the hyperbole so far is below them and not really effective as it misses the target.

    So I hope it doesn’t cause a cataclysmic blogospheric schism. I mean, I know that you, Nina, and I’m sure others disagree with me on a lot, so I hardly think adding this will make it worse. I like you guys, even if you want to bring about the extinction of the human race sooner rather than later.

  12. John does provoke visceral reactions to be sure, but to be quite honest, if I stumbled in on the writings of Zizek, I might well have a visceral and unthought out reaction to some of the more polemic things he says – for example, the flirtation with Stalinism etc. As APS will attest, I find much of the talk of Mao and Lenin in theoretical circles occasionally difficult to stomach. The only thing to do in these situations is calm right down and set to reading some actual things said in print – Theology and Social Theory, Ontology and Pardon or in the case of Lenin, just head down the second hand shop etc. Indeed, when I was an undergrad, I had a similar reaction to things Milbank said (or things I heard he said), but now I mostly find him easy going and often right in his analysis, though he from time to time lets the pure joy of working this stuff out get away from him. In fact, him and Zizek are friends (he blurbed some of his books and they are writing together at the moment), which might say something…

    For example, liberal uber-reactionary Johann Hari writes after seeing the Zizek film. I searched for a quote to post here, but the whole spiel is so achingly reactionary that I couldn’t be bothered – after all, he starts by calling Zizek a postmodernist…


  13. PS Totally incidently, I remember reading Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute and putting it down thinking it was appalling. But now, reading Lenin, I see what he is getting at with the Marx/Lenin, Christ/Paul thing, although he never actually explores it very well.

  14. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about with regard to the fuhrer principle…”

    Riffing off Schmitt, at Birkbeck Milbank explicitly said he supported it, so this is not a tendentious reading on my part.

    Further: You will note that I do not call Milbank a fascist. Rather, I suggest that, on the basis of his Birkbeck paper, it seems to me that there are certain fascist tendencies latent in his work. I admit my ignorance of his wider oeuvre, and recognize the possibility that I might be mistaken.

    For my part – I cannot speak for IT – I don’t feel especially ill-disposed to Milbank. In fact, I quite admired his lucidity, and also his consistency, and thought that, his odd notion that materialism = the baby Jesus apart, there were some points of interest in what he was saying.

    Creston “The moment is now! The moment is now!” Davis, on the other hand, struck me as simply insane.


  15. Daniel,

    No, I mean, “I don’t know what the hell you mean by that phrase, I need to go look it up.” Sorry, I should have taken it out with editing. I still think that within Milbank’s work this would be a kind of intentionally ironic position. As to the notion of “fascist tendencies”, we could make that argument about most non-liberal thinkers. I don’t know.

    TBC indeed.

  16. The moment is now? I don’t get it.

    If I am so inclined, later this week, I will post a “Why Milbank is not a fascist” mini-essay. Because, while we may be able to somehow detect latent fascistic tendencies on the basis of one paper, I having studied his work for two years and I don’t find anything like this and was quite shocked by IT statement – particularly the weird Daily Mail bit.

    Of course he has an odd notion of materialism from a standard materialist perspective (whatever that is), because his is, after all, a theologian.

  17. Really I’d like to see Daniel and IT flesh out their objections, which presumably were intellectual as well as visceral. I do have a slight feeling of dread that all this heralds a cataclysmic blogospheric schism, though…

    It won’t, I promise. Whatever disagreements we may have to have over this it won’t be devastating in that sense. At least I sincerely hope not: I regard APS (and associated others) as important friends and interlocutors, and am not likely/willing to lose them to argument unless absolutely unavoidable. I definitely (and laughingly) agree with APS here:

    I like you guys, even if you want to bring about the extinction of the human race sooner rather than later.

    There are several things going on here re Milbank I suspect, one of which is something like a kind of surprise on my part with regard to what he was like in action, and what he seemed to stand for. Believe it or not, I was perfectly prepared to listen with an open a mind as possible to the theology session, having never previously seen either Milbank or Davis in action. Indeed, I was and am curious as to what the Radical Orthodoxy position on Materialism might be (and note that I don’t accuse him of homophobia as Alex claims some ‘Leftists’ do).

    Nor should my reaction be seen as merely as response to style – as Daniel points out, Milbank’s paper was actual quite successful in the sense that it was consistent, polemic and engaging (very unlike some of the others). And I can ignore pomposity too if the content is intriguing.

    I am planning to read some Milbank soon in order to have a more coherent position on this, particularly in the light of what others are saying with regard to an initial negative reaction followed by interest. But here are just a few initial notes on the Birkbeck paper…

    On the one hand, it was obviously provocative but everything he was criticising seemed to be an incredible cliche – his attack on some sort of bad humanist, crassly progressive ‘leftist’ who is supposedly committed to the destruction of natural order and natural justice. Who exactly is this leftist exactly? Do they have any political or theoretical power? On this point it seemed as if his polemic overtook his critique – hence the Daily Mail comment in my initial piece.

    On the other hand, and more substantially, it seems to me that Milbank ditches abstract universalism, via the historical opposition of Aquinas to Scotus, in the name of natural justice. Clearly no modernist Marxist rationalist is going to be happy with this kind of organicism (even if it is non-Statist): part of the brilliance of Deleuze’s work on Scotus, for example, is the centralisation of immanence, of a certain precursor to a non-hierarchical relationship between being and its modes (even if – of course – Deleuze is no Marxist). I can see the polemical virtue of defending Thomism, perhaps, but I can’t see how it doesn’t translate into political claims about the ‘naturalness’ of certain social divisions (I assume this might be where the critiques of Milbank as potentially anti-feminist, homophobic, elitist, etc. might come in).

    The point about about how we may all be ‘anti-capitalist’ but not in the same way was made on the basis of what struck me as Milbank’s anti-dialectical anti-capitalism: many of his formulations were along the lines of ‘the trouble with today’s modern society is…’. Marxists are surely anti-capitalist in quite a different way – not only is capitalism acknowledged to be responsible for the destruction of certain social and moral boundaries, often in an interestingly progressive way, but it is the potential universality of capitalism that in some sense gives communism its model (though of course it is rather more complicated than this).

    Milbank’s resurrection of ‘guilds’, on the other hand, which seemed to invoke a kind of virtuous clerical ‘few’, combined with an Aristotelian notion of flourishing and a suspicion of technology just seemed contrarian for its own sake. I mean, what would it genuinely mean to bring about guilds? Was his recourse to Schmitt an admission of the genuinely oppressive way in which this might need to be forced? At this point I’m left with more questions than anything else – I think it best if I come back to this later…

  18. “The moment is now” – This is what Davis kept repeating, in a somewhat psychotic way. He ended his paper, incidentally, with the declaration: “Long Live the Revolution!”

    “As to the notion of “fascist tendencies”, we could make that argument about most non-liberal thinkers. I don’t know.”

    I don’t see how, really.

    There is Marxist anti-liberalism, and then there is fascist anti-liberalism. To my mind, it is possible to distinguish these, and in the coming days, I shall.

    For the moment, though, I will only note that Carl Schmitt clearly belonged to this latter camp. What distinguished his polemic against liberalism was that he saw it constitutionally weak and incoherent. This, as against the Marxist view, which understands it as a thinly veiled ideology of exploitation.

    As Schmitt understood it, what was required was a sovereign, endowed with the ability to decide on the state of exception, on the basis of his will alone. Going by his Birkbeck paper, Milbank seems to have adopted this view. I would be intrigued if anyone could say more than this.

    Furthermore, there are ideological points here to be made as well. Fascism, qua political religion, supports itself by means of a mythos of the nation. Against this, Milbank wants a new, state religious orthodoxy in the form of a reinvigorated Christianity. I accept the point that he wants this “for the left” (though I note that much of Milbank’s paper was devoted to demolishing the ‘secularist’ idea of the Left) but nevertheless I point out that this is also explicitly what fundamentalist Christians desire. My honest question is: how can you rigorously distinguish between these two desires.

    That’s all for now.

  19. No, sorry, I mean I don’t accept that one is either a Marxist or a fascist if one is anti-liberal and anti-capitalist. I’ll try to respond at more length tomorrow. I’m working on some essay of ecofascism tomorrow, so it may not get done.


    His whole Thomist thing annoys me too. But it is a weird thomism and a weird understanding of natural. So it gets to me in much the same way that people’s return to Descartes or Hegel gets to me. I dislike those thinkers and find them deeply problematic and then some asshole comes along and tries to rehabilitate them through a strange reading.

  20. I must say, that the thing about “the natural” in Milbank seems problematic, certainly to think of it in anyway that assumes a simplistic reading off of “the book of nature” that is often done in conservative circle – since for him reality is radically linguistic and everything has an air of transcendence to it and participation (his medieval Thomistic), that by this admits mystery, which in turn prevents any simple reading of “what nature says”.

    Regarding guilds, I’ll get back to you on this one, but there are reasons for his suggestion, since his socialism comes more from Ruskin and William Morris than Marx (in a way). But my problem with a lot of what is said is here similar to your own – even if it was to be the greatest thing ever, how? Then again, I see much of what Milbank suggests in his attempts to revive guild socialism in the small scale cooperatives and ethically run companies springing up. For example, and no doubt someone will provide a counterpoint explaining why they are secretly evil, the innocent smoothie company or this local collective in my town who make T-shirts – http://www.idressmyself.co.uk/ – all of which attempt some kind of grass roots and dare I say it rhizomatic system of interlocking small communities. I think in action, Milbank might well go with, act locally, think globally – which is why he loves things like parishes so much.

    There would be a virtuous “few” but their role, following Macintyre, would be to teach the “craft” at hand.


    As Schmitt understood it, what was required was a sovereign, endowed with the ability to decide on the state of exception, on the basis of his will alone.

    If you read the book by Catherine Pickstock On Writing, who Milbank wholeheartedly endorses (she was his student), you will find that this is the kind of thing that radical orthodoxy is against – for they see that in the post-Scotus world, the figure of God became more a site of inscrutable will, contract and law (possibly made most concrete in the absolute will that is a Calvinist God – re: law, the move from the virtues and vices to the ten commandments as the centre of ethics) and therefore the sovereign monarch came to manifest precisely these powers also, leading to increased centralisation and arbitrary power – the pure will you describe. I can give page references on this one tomorrow – check the time of this post – I am loser. Its repeated also in the Truth in Aquinas book in Chapter 2, I think. See, I am a loser. They contrast this post Scotist rigidity, with what they see as a pre-Scotist fluidity where there was no site of true power on earth and certainly not one of pure will (in theory at least). As I said this is sketchy, page numbers etc tomorrow.

    As for “how can you rigorously distinguish between these two desires”, one could say the same thing of, say, Stalinist terror and benevolent neo-communist socialism in some modern mode or anti-capitalism and, say, Jihadist Islam – both want the end of fascism don’t they?

    Just because they have extremely broadly the same aims (though I disagree that the aims you cite are Milbank’s), doesn’t mean that in the wider and fuller sense they do at all.

  21. Anthony, I know you think I just don’t like Milbank (I’ve tried to fight this at times, but I usually back myself in a corner), but I really do like Milbank a lot, and especially for the reasons you list–he doesn’t fit on the left or the right…he is not able to be situated in those categories (at least not easily and not without great cost to misrepresenting his thought); he actually offers a “neither, nor” kind of option. I might have my reasons for disagreeing with method, or especially certain of his conclusions, but to shoulder Milbank (by calling him a fundamentalist of all things, no doubt) would certainly be a mistake.

  22. Is it fair to wonder if Milbank is as serious about the the valorization of medieval Christianity as Zizek is about the valorization of Lenin? The rhetorical effect of both is strikingly similar.

    Also, Alex, I’m really taken by your recurring analogue between Milbank and Ruskin. Aquinas would be his Turner, no? But if this is the case, I wonder if it is time for him to finally begin writing his equivalent of the later volumes of Modern Painters. Perhaps Milbank and his project is in need of a turn not unlike that in the late-Ruskin, where the hope of a Gothic revivial is sullied by how sad and commodified its realization became. Of course, Milbank is no happy-go-lucky chap, I take it; but neither has he yet entered the forlorn period of, say, Fors Clavigera. (Relatedly, I’d be very curious to formulate a similar analogue between Milbank & Morris — w/ special attention to the place of Morris’ fiction in the analogy, what w/ its interesting relationship to his avowed politics. Perhaps Milbank’s wife would be the wildcard here.)

  23. I might throw my tuppence in here, for what it’s worth, though naturally I wouldn’t want to see any splits or schisms – that’s more of a Trotskyist thing, no? ;-) Anyway bear with me, I may go on a bit.

    Right then. The ‘organicist’ criticism, as I perceived it, was the tendency to talk of a certain ‘social body’ – society as something which has as its components a ‘head’, ‘hands’ and (this is where the fuhrerprinzip comes in) a ‘heart’. Now this seems to be part of Milbank’s more general conception of a medivalist revival of guilds, unions, small collectivities and so forth. There is a Left and Right version of this, of course. As well as Ruskin/Morris (who, btw, can’t quite be equated) there was a post-Nietzschean, non-Marxist and explicitly medievalist Communism that was very influential in Germany until around the 1920s – I’m thinking here of Activism in art and architecture, in which the likes of Bruno Taut posited a socialist community where certain groups (ie, intellectuals, artists) would have a privileged role – be the ‘few’, among the ‘many’ (in Milbank’s oft repeated terms). This had, mind you, a tie-up with council-communism: the Soviet, Rät or Co-Operative as progenitor of ‘Republics of Republics of Republics’ (in Gustav Landauer‘s phrase) which sounds strikingly like the Milbank passage quoted above. This is also how you have Expressionists post-1918 talking about ‘building the cathedral of socialism’. But in most of these cases it was anti-Marxist, not least for the attack on Marxist ‘levelling’, for the insistence on the industrial proletariat’s prominence, and on the urban. (actually another person Milbank reminded me of was another radical Medievalist, Lewis Mumford, prosleytiser of the New Town and Garden City)

    Some aspects of this would fade into rightwing discourse, some of it not, especially given that many of these theorists were associated with the Munich Soviet Republic. What it does that is, in Marxist terms, suspicious, is suggest that Labour aristocracies are a model for socialism, while they have historically usually been a fetter on equality and universalism, and more inclined to Corporativism. The Platonist insistence on a hierarchical socialism also seems, as Daniel points out, highly akin to Fascist discourse, as did a certain anti-technological, antimaterialist and culturally elitist tone. But it doesn’t have to be so – I would actually agree with him on a great deal, and I’d far rather see Morrisism, or the collective process of designing cathedrals held up as a model for the new society than eg the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

    More generally, the problem I had with Milbank and the (much less interesting) Creston person was: Badiou and Zizek’s reclaiming of a vanguardist-to-the-point-of-substitutionist Leninism, a Pauline conception of the superiority of European christendom, a rapprochment with Plato and a semi-mystical, messianic version of Lukacs’ Augenblick as the model for revolution, have all kinds of possibilities for creating a space for obscurantists, eurocentrists, would-be-vanguards and all sorts of basically anti-political fantasies.

  24. Owen,

    It sent you to the spam folder. Sorry about that. It’s all in one comment now, hope that’s alright.

    ‘More generally, the problem I had with Milbank and the (much less interesting) Creston person was: Badiou and Zizek’s reclaiming of a vanguardist-to-the-point-of-substitutionist Leninism, a Pauline conception of the superiority of European christendom, a rapprochment with Plato and a semi-mystical, messianic version of Lukacs’ Augenblick as the model for revolution, have all kinds of possibilities for creating a space for obscurantists, eurocentrists, would-be-vanguards and all sorts of basically anti-political fantasies.’

    Right, well, I don’t have the energy to respond right now but I want to just throw out a suggestion:

    You, let’s call you all the anti-obscurantist materio-rationalists for the sake of time, all seem to suggest that Milbank is bad (even fascistic!) because he advocates a kind of hierarchy of society (though without classes, I would hope you all caught that), a mystical aspect (religious) to society that opens up to irrationalism, and a Leninism/Fuhrer principle.

    It seems to me that at least Milbank is willing to go to the end! You all seem to want, and this will really disturb you, a kind of Deleuzian society! A kind of spontaneous, rational society where each can pursue their own interests without worrying about a leader/law telling you to do something else. I mean, and I have to be frank here, you seem to all be going on about the difference between Marxist communism and Milbank’s version of communism, but do you really have any faith in the proletariat? And is that faith, or trust or whatever word you want to attach to it, really at all rational based on your experience with them?

    I want the obscurantism back! Eurocentrism is exactly this idea that obscurity is bad and that politics is somehow rational or not fantasmatic.

    Alright, so, that’s unfair since I didn’t actually work in any of this out, but I have to wash some dishes and clean the office and read the rest of Matter and Memory and work some more on this paper.

  25. An aside (to Alex): I don’t think Zizek “flirts with Stalinism” at all. Everything he says about Stalinism aligns it with perversion (as a psychoanalytic diagnosis), which in Zizek’s scheme is the ultimate ethical failure — indeed, the total foreclosure of ethics. He does want to think seriously about the specificity of Stalinism as a phenomenon, and the whole thing with the picture outside his office in the movie, or the claim to be “an arch-Stalinist,” seems to be intended to scare off people who don’t want to get past the point of saying, “It’s bad.” (Which it is, but still.)

  26. Adam, point taken. You are right, I was referring to the office thing in the movie. This said, I don’t think anyone would be quite so comfortable if he had a picture of Hitler outside his office, which is something he kind of alludes to in his talk about Goodbye Lenin. While we are talking about visceral reactions, when I watched this bit of the film I was between shock, embarrassment and anger.

    Throw as well as Morris and Ruskin, the guild socialists, the Christian socialist and maybe Orwell into Milbank’s anti-Marxist (ish – recall his Chapters for and against Marx in Theology and Social Theory), add also the distrubutists such as Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Eric Gill. It looks like he is attempting a full on rival of pre-Marxist socialism, while appreciating elements of Marxist critique. I actually hear echos of this kind of stuff in Hardt and Negri.

    Here is the question, and lets all be actually frank: does Zizek really actually think there will be a Leninist probably armed revolution in the West? This seems to be what he is suggesting, as he often chides leftists for not getting their hands dirty. This is why I often prefer what Milbank and many anarchist groups seems to be suggesting, a grassroot undercutting of capitalism.

  27. The function of the reference to Lenin seems to me to basically mean that:
    1. We need to keep open the possibility of genuine, large-scale change, and
    2. We need to acknowledge that there will be a cost.

    He also seems to think, incidentally, that the gesture of radical refusal (Bartleby) is more “violent” than literal violence.

  28. The function of the reference to Lenin seems to me to basically mean that:
    1. We need to keep open the possibility of genuine, large-scale change, and
    2. We need to acknowledge that there will be a cost.

    This seems largely in keeping with the overall effect of Milbank’s rendition of and appeal to medieval Christianity. In much the same way with Zizek’s Lening, it doesn’t seem strictly apologetic or even pointing to a specific programme. The specific theological content, such as there is, while scary for so many, just doesn’t seem as essential to its rhetorical function. I suspect the same will be true of his new Trinitarian stuff.

  29. …add also the distrubutists such as Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Eric Gill.

    Well, Belloc actually was a fascist, so this doesn’t seem like a terribly powerful defense of Millbank (I know nothing about Millbank, so I’m not saying that whatever, if anything, he takes from Belloc makes him a fascist; just that drawing from Belloc doesn’t serve to distance someone from fascism, but rather the contrary).

    It looks like he is attempting a full on rival of pre-Marxist socialism.

    I’m a bit suspicious of the attempt to rope in Morris on the side of pre-Marxist socialism; he may have been a Christian socialist before he became a Marxist, but once he discovered Marx, he was a committed Marxist, becoming an atheist and dropping the feudalism from his socialism. So drawing on Morris to reclaim a pre-Marxist socialism seems problematic to me (though maybe Millbank deals with this).

  30. I should point out that my list is very much ad-hoc and wasn’t a defense in any substantive sense, but just a few figures I have heard him talk about, and of them, Morris, Chesterton and Ruskin are the people I can pick out and support with textual evidence.

    As for pre-Marxist socialism, I wouldn’t want to defend this as what precisely Milbank is trying to do, though I think some degree of recovery is an element of it. At the base of it is an opinion that the truest expression of Christianity is socialism, and that resources must be drawn on that are theologically defensible to base it on. Any more than this, I would have to resort to the books.

  31. Check out this article by Creston Davis:


    If a good question is ‘what is Milbank?’ Another good one is ‘What are his followers?’ Davis strikes me as crazy. I cannot believe he said that at that conference!
    The beginning of that article explains a bit of his [militant/military] history which might help explain his style.

  32. ‘Davis strikes me as crazy. I cannot believe he said that at that conference!’

    What did he say? I must have missed the comment.

    Creston, who is a friend of mine, is a bit crazy. He says he isn’t a follower of Milbank and his most recent stuff strikes me as a real attempt to bridge the divide between Zizek and Milbank. I don’t know if this is a worthwhile endeavour, but Creston is a bit of a whirlwind and can’t be contained. Again, he sees his project as being closer to Hegel and Badiou than Spinoza and Deleuze.

    His history, of which we only get a glimpse in that article, is quite inspiring, despite his enthusiasm.

  33. Actually, I don’t think that’s Creston’s fault. It used to have paragraph breaks back when I originally read it a couple of years ago. I think the Other Journal programmers forgot to maintain his formatting when they upgraded the look of their site.

  34. I am sure that is the case. But I am serious that this article sufficiently rendered “paragraph” a concept of which I now no longer have knowledge over against myself, but rather an und fur sich.

  35. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/religion/ – go to Listen under Beyond Belief. Milbank giving probably the clearest exposition of his position on capitalism and his brand of Christian socialism – “its possible to be a Christian Conservative and its possible to be a Christian Socialist, what its not possible to be is a christian liberal supporter of Capitalism”. Here, bloody here.

  36. Anthony,

    Sorry for the super late clarification, but I was talking about ‘The moment is now!’ comment he made, and ‘long live the revolution.’ I did not mean to insult your friend, though I would be interested to learn more about his history.

  37. Sorry to be so late to post, but I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion of Milbank, as well as the feedback from the London conference.

    For what it’s worth, my own experience of John, while limited, is that he is a genuinely kind and good person and an excellent teacher. I find his presentations bombastic and over-the-top, but that also contributes to the celebrity. I have been extremely critical of Milbank’s theology, although I appreciate very much the incisive critiques of capitalism, and I like the idea of reading his use of Aquinas and medieval Christianity more strategically than substantively.

    Milbank really does seem to like debate, although he’s also very invested in choosing and promoting his ‘side,’ which makes some of his interventions more polemical and I think less constructive.
    It’s interesting how committed he is to a vision of Christian theology without violence or discord, but he’s very happy about drawing lines and engaging in fights with those he disagrees with.

    I went to the conference on Belief and Metaphysics that RO helped put on in Granada Spain last September, along with Jeff Robbins and Noelle Vahanian, and we were marginalized and ignored, which didn’t really surprise me. The highlight for me (other than just being in Granada) was at the last session, when Robbins decimated Radical Orthdoxy in a beautiful and generous way (his paper–“The Gift of Unbelief”–is in the same issue of Angelaki that has Anthony’s review of Hallward). By the way, Phillip Goodchild had just asked a devasting question to the person who presented just before Jeff, and their combined impact threatened to mar the tone of the conference, and its self-satisfied and somewhat self-indulgent conclusions about the revival of metaphysics. Milbank had already left, but I thought Conor Cunningham was going to have a stroke, he was so angry.

    Ultimately, I think John is a person of great integrity, which I cannot say about everyone involved in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, and I can see that in the kinds of students he has nurtured, including Goodchild and Davis.

    As far as Creston is concerned, you can say whatever you want about him, but you really should wait until after you’ve met him in person. There’s a legend about Confucius, that he supposedly met Lao Tsu and responded something like (I’m paraphrasing): “I know about all the animals that walk on land and the fish that swim in the sea and the birds that fly in the air. But I don’t know the dragon, and Lao Tsu is like the dragon.” That’s the best I can do in describing Creston, Creston is like the dragon.

  38. Alex and Anthony, Can you guys answer a question for me regarding Milbank’s intention? He often says things like this (taken from The Other Journal interview): “I think the crucial point is that the power that is running the law and the system of punishments, these must not be things that are directly in the name of God, and there mustn’t be certainly a quasi-sacral caste that is performing these actions in any sense at all, for all of the Augustinian reasons that this is the city of this world and it’s a secondary good and the whole system of law and punishment is necessary because of sin and so on, and so it’s quite important that that area is distinguished from the church.” The part in question is in italics. Whenever he talks about this in person, does he seem to actually believe that that is an Augustinian point; or, is he there doing a “strong misreading” of Augustine? Because if he really thinks that Augustine says “the church” is different from the “city of man” then his narrative is in serious trouble.

  39. Errrr, in real life, he doesn’t talk about Augustine much, at least not to me. And as with most of his readings, he would probably state that he has taken Augustine on a somewhat Deleuzian line of flight.

    But I think his point would be that though the earthly city contains the Church, the earthly Church is finally realised in the City of God, which in his ecclesialogy represents the final pilgrimage destination and its placement in the Heavenly Church. So the City of God is everything the Church could be and should be, or something along those lines.

  40. Clayton, that’s a great story. I always envision an angry Conor on the brink of physical violence. I’ve been told this is not the case at all. It might just be a wish. We always hear a lot about how ____ doesn’t like _____. But just once, I want to see it get back-to-the-playground physical; or, at the very least, culminate in a shamanic cursing (a la Charles Long on Thomas Altizer at the 1989 AAR — one of my favorite theological stories ever).

    What you say, re: RadOrth and debate seems dead-on to me. In fact, it is exactly what I said during a job interview this week. When asked my perspective, I laid out the problems I had with it, followed it up by then pointing out that people like Milbank were laying out directions for potentially crucial theological & political debate, and then concluded by saying, “Of course, the very terms they set for the debate actually prevents it from happening, but hey, nobody’s perfect, esp. when you’re a fascist.” It got a good laugh. And then they didn’t hire me.

  41. The only demand is to have the same passion that they do. Say what you will about Radical Orthodoxy, and there is plenty to say, but it has fought hard for a place for theology amongst those who are only happy with weak Captuo-like liberalism. Of course Brad is right that they do cut off debate in their terms, but that doesn’t preclude on being more clever, or at least significantly louder, than Conor or John. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Conor angry. He gets excitedly aggressive and this combined with his Irishness tends to make North Americans think he is angry, but this seems to me to be a cultural mistake. It’s like Zizek, except he really means it.

    Oh, and by the way, Zizek’s article is both really bad and interesting. For one, the current Pope has not aligned himself with intelligent design at all. He doesn’t hold to a kind of ultra-darwinism, but his approach is nothing like the American intelligent design community. I think he holds to a kind of ‘creative plan’ of evolution, which is fair enough as a Catholic. If you believe in God you’re going to believe that there is some creative intent in the unfolding of the universe, but this doesn’t mean anything like the kind of reactionary stance of most intelligent design folks. Sometimes I wish Zizek would shut the fuck up and do his research.

  42. Indeed APS. I am actually really, really shocked that Zizek managed to get something of the ilk of “Pope supports intelligent design” in a prestigious journal, when it is nothing of the case, indeed, in the recent Kansas trial it was a Catholic evolutionary biologist who showed the ID people to not have a leg to stand on scientifically (or regarding the philosophy of science). It made me really, really mad.

  43. Alex, What I meant was that the problem for Augustine in the City of God is that the city of earth is in the church, making only certain members of the church to be a part of the City of God. All the discussions about magistrates, etc. — they all work against the kind of distinction Milbank draws in the above quote. That is, of course for Augustine everyone not in the church is going to hell; but, the problem for him is precisely that some people in the church are going to hell too, which frustrates any attempt to say that the power that is running law and governments has to be separated from the church. Augustine’s turn to coercion during the Donatist controversy does not make sense, otherwise: of course, he has civic governements carry it out, but he does think it has religious value on its own terms, and this is intimately connected to his mature theology of grace. Milbank had made this mistake at the end of Theology and Social Theory, but I guess I had chalked that up to a youthful indiscretion.

  44. It doesn’t seem to me to be a question of whether Augustine is right or wrong, but rather one can do a particular thing with a particular theological theme. But, why exactly do you say he is wrong?

  45. I actually don’t understand what you are saying he is saying. I was just kidding around. You know, I’m not sure how I would even argue for or against it. This is why I shouldn’t be in a theology department.

  46. I am not really offering it up for debate, so much as I want to know if Milbank actually thinks that Augustine says what he says he says, or whether he is intentionally misreading him somehow. This is one of those places where I think that theory can be falsified historically.

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