What does it mean to be a failure? How can we be adequate to a reality that demands that we cede all hope of success? These are questions that came to mind as I was reading Marika’s A Theology of Failure. In thinking through these questions, I would like to focus my remarks on some themes that I found particularly striking throughout the book: the relationship between freedom, ethics, and the dialectical identity of good and evil.
In her reading of Pseudo-Dionysius, Marika identifies a structural similarity between God’s act of creation and human sinfulness. The free excessive act of God generates the world in all its variety and richness, but the free excessive act of humans brings everything towards chaos and death. There is no justification or telos behind creation just as there is no justification or telos behind sin. Sin and creation are both “excessive, unjustifiable, inexplicable act[s] that ruptures economy.” (19) This is the paradox: creation is good for the same reason that sin is evil. This problematic reappears in Marika’s elaboration of Slavoj Žižek’s understanding of the relation between ontology, desire, drive, and freedom. For Žižek, drive functions in the material, individual, and social world, and in each case “there is a sense that it simply is how things function.” (71) By contrast, desire is wedded to intentionally and telos: ‘I want X for Y reasons.’ Drive – on account of its impersonal “blind automatism of repetition” – cannot be assimilated to systems of meaning; it circulates and repeats regardless of one’s attitude towards it.
Our systems of meaning (the symbolic order) function according to the logic of drive, for while we are the one’s who have brought them into existence, these systems come to have an independent existence that we have no control over. Which is also to say that “existing networks of power can give birth to the cause of their own destruction, to that which will exceed, transform, or overcome them.” (71) The subject’s decision to accede to drive is the ground of their freedom. Given that drive exceeds the very system of meaning from which the subject emerges, the subjects “free enactment of her or his own fate” cannot be justified or rendered coherent. Like God’s act of creation, the subjects assent to drive is excessive, unjustifiable, and inexplicable.
The excessiveness and inexplicability of drive leads Žižek to assert that the drive is the paradoxical coincidence of good and evil. (72) His argument is something of a transmutation of the Dionysian problematic. Unlike Dionysius, however, Žižek affirms “the formal parallel between God’s excessive, unjustifiable act of creation and the excessive, unjustifiable human act of sin.” (74) Freedom is nothing other than being affected by the world, its ruptures, its chaos, and its incompleteness. The ethical implications of freedom are considerable, for if freedom – as excessive and unjustifiable – cannot be assimilated to any system of meaning, then “the subject must take responsibility for her own actions, without reference to an external standard of Law” thereby escaping “the dialectic of law and transgression”, and what I would call the economy of guilt. Interestingly, for Žižek the ethics of freedom is the “emancipatory core” of the Latin Christian and enlightenment legacies. (74) Such a claim entails preserving these legacies as the precondition for freedom. Marika notes that such a move is a departure from Žižek’s dialectic, and I would add, amounts to a resolution of the identity of good and evil, and most importantly, a failure to reckon with its transmutation into the dialectic of freedom and slavery. There is an inverted relation between the incoherent repetition and circulation of drive that characterizes freedom, and the gratuitous violence that characterizes slavery. But by insisting on the preservation of the European legacy, Žižek retreats from the logic of drive, to a logic of desire. The thought of being separated from Pater Europa has Žižek flinching in the face of his own insights.
Drawing on Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton, Marika suggests that “a more faithfully Žižekian reading of political freedom would affirm the dialectical identity of freedom and slavery.” (75) This is not a positive affirmation for it would take the form of deracination, the uprooting of one’s spatio-temporal coordinates, the dissolution of any claim to freedom, of any claim whatsoever. This raises some questions for me. Is it possible that deracination might fold into a narrative of redemption? That the prospects of abolition can subsumed by the longstanding fetishization of freedom? If so, how might one hold open or tarry with the antagonism of freedom and slavery? In the end, these new questions bring me back to the questions I began with, and in the spirit of incompleteness they will remain unanswered: What does it mean to be a failure? How can we be adequate to a reality that demands that we cede all hope of success?