Theorizing Political Practice (I): On the Conditions of Possibility for An Anglo-Slovenian, Theologico-Materialist Syndicate of Socialist Praxis

Word has it that Žižek and Milbank are friends – writing a book together, even. I thought of this while reading the opening paragraph of Žižek’s most recent article:

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.

The paragraph is nothing unusual. It is the standard prestige of the Žižekian magic trick: first, we have to see the common household politico-economic assumption clearly before he deftly rolls it through his Hegelio-Lacanian fingers, and transforms it into…a common household politico-economic assumption…decked out in a sweet new “$ ◊ α” t-shirt…with weapons! But, beyond this, there was something in the way he admits here that “even Mao’s attempt…ended up” with the “triumphant return” of capitalism that brought Milbank to mind. That is, it specifically brought to mind Milbank’s argument that Žižek’s ontology is inadequate to genuine socialism – revolution, maybe, but not socialism. And, justified or not, I read the subsequent salvo against Critchley with an eye toward gleaning some inkling as to how Žižek might formulate his response. In the process, I formulated a couple of my own observations about the intersection of their work, and a rather unexpected conclusion concerning the “democracy to come” crowd (part II.)

First, it seems to me that Žižek’s work is integral to Milbank’s in one very important respect. It is said that, during his recent appearance at Birkbeck, Milbank expressed his fundamental agreement with the Führerprinzip. Now, this should not have been unexpected, nor is it particularly indebted to Žižek. After all, as this, and the very existence of this, should demonstrate sufficiently, recourse to a leadership principle is simply the conclusion of any argument that begins with “Alasdair McIntyre.” But, it is the genuinely Leftist patina of that affirmation as it issues from Milbank (as opposed to the pompous, Chesterbellocian paranoia it could have become) that distinguishes him even from many of his allies. And this, I cannot help but believe, is due in large measure to the vision of proletarian dictatorship Žižek has been able to articulate via his engagement with Schmitt – a vision that effectively supplies Milbank with the proper concept of the political he needs to compliment his ecclesio-trinitarian ontology of hierarchical anarchy.

Second, there is a very important sense in which Milbank is integral, not so much to the content, but to the fact that Žižek says what he does. Milbank epitomizes everything that captivates Žižek about Fundamentalists, but with none of the perversities. In this way, being allied with Milbank essentially forces his audience to make the necessary passage through the Christian moment, to wrestle with what is worth fighting for there. Milbank is Žižek – the believer. There is a fundamental, theoretical rationale for this: Milbank is the prestige in the dialectical magic act Žižek is making regarding Christianity – the clearest presentation of common household Christianity acting für sich, the subversive kernel of which he wants to present to you an und für sich.

Here we can discern the contours of what would make for an interesting response to Milbank. This idea of a “pure” City of God (ecclesia) with its ontology of charity that does not live by, and is antagonistic to, the City of Man (State-capitalism) – this is the height of melancholic, nihilistic nostalgia. It cannot be itself without the State, and thus it cannot do what must be done; it cannot act on what the Begriff of the faith necessitates: a bold positive gesture of negation – the seizure of State power and the relentless imposition of the very Christian ontology Milbank is talking of, which is the condition necessary for the realization of genuine socialism. Thus, the position is the precise opposite of what Milbank believes it to be. Beginning with an “ontology of peace” cannot account for the kind of agency required to even begin to realize, in the present situation, what is coneived in the notion itself. Taking responsiblity for the notion means owning up to the fact that such an ontology can only be originary in terms of the après-coup: what is evil now will-have-been the Good in its becoming.

Now, this yields something quite interesting. It might appear as if this gets the best of Milbank, demonstrating decisively that the content of Milbank’s vision is disproportionate to its form. But, this would be to overlook the fact that we have encountered here the real dialectical limit that each believes to be impossible. It is simply not the case that one has the content right and the form wrong (or vice versa), while the other has both. Žižek has it wrong because it is not that the content of Milbank’s vision that is correct; it is the form. The positive negation necessary for the dialectical becoming of being means that the historical unfolding of the logic of Spirit/bone resolves, not in the finite mediation of the infinite in and through the dictatorship of the proletariat, but in, through, and as Nothingness itself – absolute apocalypse.

But, thus and conversely, it is not at all the form of Žižek’s argument that is correct; it is the content. If Christianity is to truly realize itself, it cannot remain content to simply tell the metaphysical narrative of a city that is not the State, it must act to realize that city, which means precisely not remaining content to be the blessed soul it would otherwise have itself be. Christianity requires State power and must wield it, powerfully, in the name of charity. To do so, however, will be to leave the form behind for the sake of the content. This is right, but in order to keep the apocalyptic Nothingness from appearing, the form of Milbank’s argument must be absorbed.

This is a genuine dialectical limit. There is no further to go. Each needs the other to be himself, but neither can be himself without the other. Žižek needs Milbank’s form; Milbank needs Žižek’s content. Such, it seems to me, is the significance of the admission in the opening paragraph insofar as it is read in light of this odd friendship – and, most especially with regard to their book-writing. No doubt, the book itself will mark a terminus – the realization of the Idea they are each united to produce.

And, one is left wondering how the conceptual rejection of all limit resolves just here with what appears to be the positing of socialism as a mere regulative ideal, and the rather weak political practice of publishing. It would appear that Hegel has in fact become Kant. And, this leads us to the significance of Critchley, and his articulation of the political significance of the vision of “democracy to come.” Perhaps he is the indivisible remainder in this procession of ideas. But, this will have to wait until Part II.

18 thoughts on “Theorizing Political Practice (I): On the Conditions of Possibility for An Anglo-Slovenian, Theologico-Materialist Syndicate of Socialist Praxis

  1. Do you mind if I actually send this to John M to ask what he thinks? I’ll try and respond as best I can in his voice once I have had time to process, but I think he might be interested in it.

  2. JD,

    This is an incredible insight–one which I am certain will become more and more significant the more we see the Zizekian-Milbankian synthesis unfold.

    I am going to post some reflections about this over at La Perruque…great post.

    One question: Which essay is the First Things link to (their website sucks and doesn’t allow for single post links)? The Neuhaus?

  3. JD, you meant the very existence of the journal First Things itself, right? Sorry…little slow.

    I tried to post this comment a couple times yesterday (and the post(s) I’ve promised), but could not get any internet connection…post forthcoming.

  4. Alex, I took JD to be making a few subtle moves in that comment (and I could really be missing what he was doing here). But, I think he’s making something like these three basic moves:

    1) Milbank’s acceptance of the “Fuhrerprinzip” goes hand in hand with a comment he made at a colloquy that Anthony referred to a while back about being a “papist”;
    2) The conversion of significant Protestant (mostly mainline) theologians to the Roman Catholic church (in the Christian Century article) evidences a perverse desire for leadership that flows from out of a Macyntirean virtue ethics of “the few”; and
    3) The journal First Things is perhaps the clearest example of a militant defense of the leadership principle (and especially of an elite few in the academic guild!) in the form of its obtrusively annoying editor, and chief of Protestant-to-Roman Catholic converts, John Neuhaus.

  5. I was just saying that the Christian Century article and the very existence of First Things suggest that a certain way of approaching certain ecclesial and cultural issues leads one to advocate a leadership principle. I specifically distinguished Milbank from that crowd by emphasizing the distinctively Leftist thrust of his thinking. I imagine he hates First Things, actually.

    Email about the other.

  6. Milbank on several occasions has expressed his hatred of First Things and everything they are associated with. John is leftist to the last and I really think his conception of power is far more interesting than the Fuherprinzip. In fact, when asking him flatly he denied this.

  7. Alex,

    Sorry to be confusing…I wasn’t suggesting that Milbank liked First Things with my comment…I actually layed things out that detailed simply to wrap my head around what JD was trying to do (partially because I have not been a part of all these conversations that back all of this up, and partially because I’m completely unaware of the nuances of how “Fuhrerprinzip” might have been used by Milbank at Birkbeck–and everyone who was there admits that he did in fact back it up there…but with your comment, this must also mean that he meant it, as with all things he says, in a quite nuanced way–and I think JD was aware of those nuances in his exposition here).

    As for Neuhaus–I don’t think I could agree more.

  8. Substantive remark: Does Milbank’s ontology really map out into socialism? I do think it’s right to say that he has no way of bringing it about, and so Zizek’s theory of revolution might be a necessary supplement, but I’m not convinced that the ontological hierarchy of participation is socialist (or even desirable) — or, hell, even Christian.

  9. It depends on what one means by socialist. Maybe you could map out what you mean a little more – ie what specific points you consider to be anti- or un- socialist about it.

  10. Adam, it is the Christianess of “ontological hierarchy of participation” that I was calling into question by saying the form, not the content, of Milbank’s argument is correct.

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