I think it’s fitting that the metaphor of a misty day is so central to Milbank’s essay in The Monstrosity of Christ. No matter what that metaphor tells us about the structure of reality, it does tell us a lot about the experience of reading Milbank, where various names emerge briefly from the fog, grounded in a certain haziness. We learn that Zizek is at times more Schellingian than Hegelian, at other times a hair’s breadth from being properly Kierkegaardian, perhaps closer to one of Eckhart’s predecessors than to the Meister himself, certainly distant from Aquinas (though perhaps not equally distant on all questions), etc., etc. But they’re all just names! He doesn’t tell us why Zizek is Schellingian, for example, by reference either to Zizek’s text or Schelling’s text. He doesn’t tell us what he thinks it means to be Schellingian. He doesn’t explain what “degrees” of Schellingianism look like.
I think we all realize by now that Milbank has idiosyncratic views of certain figures, and I think that’s wonderful in itself — let a thousand flowers bloom, right? But part of the process has to be occasionally showing your work. For instance, he could acknowledge that he disagrees with the scholarly consensus and then put forward his own view, with some degree of textual support. If he doesn’t want to do that “in place,” then he could drop a footnote to an article or chapter where he does support his opinion — or even promise a future one, since presumably Milbank is past the point where he has trouble placing articles.
Another possibility: if he is writing a response to a piece by, for example, Zizek, a piece that perhaps appears in the same book, he could maybe drop in a few quotations from the actual Zizek piece. (I haven’t finished Zizek’s response to Milbank yet, but it would appear that quoting each other was not against the rules, since Zizek quotes Milbank extensively.) Or he could maybe consider possibly responding to the actual things that Zizek talks about rather than free-associating about sexuality.
Doing that would help him to avoid a move that is near and dear to my hate-filled heart: taking what you think of a topic that Zizek addresses, plugging in your own view instead of his, then arguing that this bizarre hybrid that you are now choosing to call Zizek doesn’t make sense. In this case, it’s the dialectic. Suddenly, we’re to believe that Zizek’s idiosyncratic appropriation of Hegel by way of Lacan is exactly the same as what the traditional criticism of Hegel teaches us to fear. Above all, we’re to fear the dialectic’s oppressively teleological nature, right? Well, I may be alone in this, but I can’t think of a less teleological thinker than Zizek, anyone who is less convinced that things will come to a happy synthesis in the end. In fact, he claims that this teleological version of the dialectic is the thing that brought down Marxism. Naturally, he doesn’t embrace that teleological version and has in fact spend multiple books detailing exactly what his idiosyncratic view of Hegel is.
Surely Milbank, a major practicioner of idiosyncratic reading, can sympathize with Zizek’s desire to read Hegel differently, right? Surely some basic respect for Zizek would require at least making note of the fact that Zizek understands Hegel — who is, after all, one of his most important intellectual touchstones — differently from the scholarly consensus and in direct opposition to that consensus. But no: we just get the “scary teleological Hegel” and plug him into Zizek. And then it turns out that Zizek is teleological, too! But things could’ve gone differently — for instance, we could’ve gotten some fantasy version of the middle ages without all the bad stuff — and therefore Zizek’s wrong. Done and done!
Oh, and by the way, Zizek is misreading Eckhardt because he agrees with the scholarly consensus, whereas Milbank properly (and idiosyncratically) sees Eckhart as pointing forward to the “missed opportunity” version of the middle ages that we could’ve gotten if only… I don’t know, if only we’d kept everything more in balance. At this point, I’m going to hope that the opportunism of Milbank’s readings of figures (the scholarly consensus is right if it would undermine Zizek, and it’s wrong if it would undermine Zizek) is sufficiently clear and move toward more substantive questions.
For instance, I think it’s clear that Milbank’s “Catholic” position (drawing on Desmond in specific here) is a way of saying “you really can have it all!” We can “account for” everything if we have an ontology grounded in an analogical relationship between finitude and the divine. And in fact, if we don’t have such an ontology in place, bad things happen! Therefore, we should all become Catholic or something (this is another area of haziness). But I think we’re missing a few steps here. First of all, there’s the big question: what if there isn’t a God? Sure, bad consequences might follow from there not being a God, but is that really how we make these decisions? If it is, then it seems that Milbank is “postmodern” in the most vulgar possible sense — and given the rigorous lack of concreteness when it comes to what the ideal Milbankian utopia would actually look like, I’m not even sure how convincing such an argument is on its own terms.
The more serious point, however, is that despite the capaciousness of Milbank’s Catholicism, it seems to be unable to “account for” one thing — precisely Christ. Everything seems to work just fine without him, and the attempts to shoehorn the Incarnation into the system strike me as afterthoughts for the most part. The Neoplatonism is where Milbank’s heart really is, and he’s into his idealized version of “Catholicism” because that’s been the primary historical carrier of Neoplatonism in his part of the world. (Presumably an Iranian Milbank would’ve been a Muslim who believed himself to be providing the Ayatollah with some intellectual “wiggle room,” and an Indian Milbank would be wondering aloud if the caste system hasn’t gotten a bad rap due to poor implementation.) For all his talk about history and thick contingency, he doesn’t seem to me to have any serious sense of the contingent historical event that should be central to all his reflections. And so for me, Milbank’s argument suffers from a problem much worse than being an unconvincing argument for Christianity — it’s unclear to me that what it’s arguing for even is Christianity.