On Contaminating Drive with Desire and (not quite) Ending the World: A Theology of Failure Book Event

“Everybody knows that theology has failed,” Rose begins, before going on to do it better than anyone has in a long time. I’m sure that her version of this joke is funnier, too. How can we take failure seriously when its spokesperson can’t even bother to fail in her own book on the subject. Gotcha, hypocrite!

I’ll get serious. Rose’s book provides a necessary opportunity to think about different ways to fail. And one of the thoughts that returned over and over while reading the book was the question of how to differentiate between kinds of failure without beginning again to carve out a space for innocence.

Rose rightly resists the economy of a Christian cycle of failure-forgiveness, whether it generates innocence at the level of personal piety, socio-cultural amnesia, or intellectual coherence. And she rightly regards Žižek’s reprisal of euro-centric white-supremacism and misogyny as reprehensible failures to adequately address the material conditions that he claims to understand and describe. These are failures that we can and should repudiate.

But what kind of failures should we embrace? What are the failures in which we “fail better?” The distinction between drive and desire, as others have noted, does so much helpful work at this point—especially in undermining claims to innocence. We fail in our quest for a coherent subjectivity, we have failed to build a just society, we fail to understand ourselves and others, we fail to think God. We can and should sit with these forms of failure. The impossible desire for success on any of these points, or even the claim that we’ve done “good enough,” generates culpable delusions of wholeness and innocence. And such delusions can hide the suffering of those who are sacrificed for the appearance of wholeness. Far better to embrace a drive toward the impossible, and to keep throwing ourselves into our failures.

How, again, to differentiate between the “good” failures of impossible drives and the reprehensible failures that build castles of innocence on blood-sodden soil? Could we, should we, imagine a kind of polar opposition between these two? The answer that emerges in Rose’s book comes through her alignment of several significant conversations in Continental philosophy over the last century.

Rose draws together the distinction between gift and economy with the distinction between divine violence and ordinary violence. Thinking with (and against) Žižek, Rose uses these distinctions to think about what it would take to break out of the interlocking oppressions and degradations that lock our world into inescapable systems of exploitation. “The gift” of/as divine violence represents the impossible break in the circulating economies of exchange that bind and entrap everyone, and above all “the heretic, the witch, the slave” (181). The gift makes everything different because, to be the gift, it must call into question the whole circulating economy. Divine violence brings the world to a stop, and what world lies beyond that hiatus, no one can know.

And so, at the beginning of her fifth chapter, Rose asks how we can differentiate between the “good” aneconomic violence that suspends and destroys the order of this world and the “bad” economic violence that maintains the circulating entrapments of this world (119). Žižek’s work helps to think through these distinctions insofar as he brings together ontological, socio-political, and psychoanalytic critical reflection in ways that few other thinkers do. While Žižek’s discussions of violence, somewhat characteristically, lack conceptual precision, Rose clarifies the discussions of violence by reading through a Lacanian understanding of trauma. This fifth chapter, also delivers the most pointed critique of Žižek’s thought insofar as, even as he calls down divine violence upon the world, his work also orbits in the reactionary economies of Euro-centric, white supremacist patriarchy. While he claims to speak in the name of a revolution beyond the constraints of mere identity politics, his inattention to racialization and gender as foundational political categories (not only personal ones) leaves his work uncomfortably close to the Eurocentric liberal inclusion that he supposedly repudiates.

My concern here is that, in the form of a polar opposition, the distinction between good violence enacting the destruction of the world we know and the bad violence that maintains the economic function of the world perpetuates the logical space of a kind of innocence. Once I have conceived of the good violence, of the impossible possibility of a world beyond the circulation of oppression, I can begin to proleptically identify myself with such a world. I can’t enact impossible divine violence, but I can still call myself an ally. That identification can, and often does, facilitate an ironic distance from the ways that I still, necessarily, participate in the oppressive economies of this world. Žižek’s thought can conceal a logic of revolutionary purity, which invites libidinal investment in innocence, or at least innocence-to-come. Such investment remains trapped in impossible desire rather than being re-structured into a drive toward the impossible. Rose helps to illuminate this trap, even as offering the distinction between “good” aneconomic violence and “bad” violence might also lead us into it.

Still, what does a “good” failure look like? It’s perhaps easier to answer that question at the psychoanalytic and the ontological levels and most difficult at the level of politics and the social order. Rose’s text does brilliant and difficult work on this point in conversation with Marcella Althaus-Reid, Frank Wilderson, and Linn Tonstad. Still, in and through her discussion of these thinkers’ work, I still wonder whether the formal notion of an absolute divine violence or a total disruption of economy also serves as a shelter for a kind of attachment to innocence. Looking toward the horizon of the impossible revolution, the most important question is not “how do we eradicate economy altogether?” but “how do we radically transform the exchanges and interdependences in which we live?”

Shifting the question in this way does, it seems to me, put some pressure on the book’s sharpest distinctions: that between aneconomic violence and the violence of our present social order, and that between desire and drive. In light of Rose’s political commitments in the text, the contamination of drive with some element of desire seems like a necessary failure, perhaps even a good one. To march, to organize, to struggle, to strike, to put our bodies in the way of the machines—this is not just a compulsion that, in its purest form, can be indifferent to its goals. Even partial fulfillment of our impossible desires means a better world for those we love, for those with whom we have built solidarity. All that to ask, does a purified political drive run the risk of failing too well. To refuse the failed economy of our world should not lead us to invoke abstract and unknowable divine aneconomic realm (as Rose herself clearly argues [148–49]). Yet, to materialize seemingly impossible modes of exchange, I wonder whether we need to hold on to just a little bit of desire in our drives. If desire still naively believes in realization in its forlorn orientation to its object, while drive is a self-aware orientation that has settled into the impossibility of its fulfillment, do we need to contaminate drive with desire in order to labor for the ways in which we can really be different and better than we are? There is no fulfillment, no wholeness, but there is a world better than this one—and we should want it.

Rose is a more astute reader of the psychoanalytic tradition than I am, by far. So I may be misreading and unnecessarily muddling desire and drive. I mean to think sympathetically with Rose here, not to critique. These are thoughts that she has opened up for me, that would not have been within my reach without her careful and long labor. In that spirit, I found myself thinking alongside Rose’s work about other theologians whose work has had a significant impact on my thought.

How could we think with Rose, for example, about James Cone’s rigorous insistance that God is Black? At first glance, the cataphatic claim that God is Black does not seem to be any kind of apophaticism at all. On further reflection, perhaps it is Cone who is adeptly bringing forward the best of Pseudo-Dionysius in contemporary theology. God’s Blackness irreparably disrupts the racialized economies of this world’s power structures. Loving, praying to, worshipping, and being conformed to God’s Blackness changes everything—history, community, family, the shape of thought itself. Cone’s cataphatic claim (“God is…”) conceal a radical apophasis of thought and practice because the cathectic particularity of Cone’s claim interrupts the circulation of (white) abstraction and mystification, in which divine mystery always eventually aligns with pale-faced priorities. God, in God’s Blackness, is both stumbling block and cornerstone, the fundamental antagonism that will destroy me and the opening through which something new might arise.

Cone’s theology fails differently, and fails better than the “deconstructionist theologies” of Caputo and Keller (targets of Rose’s critique who more explicitly bear the mantle of apophaticism). But why? I would suggest that Cone’s theological failure is preferable to Caputo and Keller’s precisely because Cone works toward a particular kind of exchange and interdependence—an economy radically different from our own, but not a pure aneconomic realm to come. Divine violence intervenes here by taking sides within the world’s economy against the world’s economy, not through an apocalyptic blank-slate do-over. Cone’s tireless work in the struggle for justice and liberation for Black people in a world built by white supremacist formations is certainly more drive than desire. Yet, I think that there must be something of desire in that struggle too, some longing that is not just enjoyed for its own sake, but an emptiness that really can be filled by a different kind of human society, filled not as a totalizing fullness or completion, but as a different and better way of living.

Or, perhaps even better: how could we think with Rose about the theology of Delores Williams, for whom Cone’s image of God’s liberatory Blackness is too optimistic a read of scripture and history. For Williams, God is the material power that opens ways of survival through impossible situations where “there is no way.” Hagar in the wilderness becomes a type for African American women who struggle for a better quality of life. For Williams, God never seems sufficiently opposed to the horrors of the world, and yet, God is inexhaustible. When Williams quotes Ntozake Shange: “I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely” how should we understand this theological self-relation to relative to desire, drive, and economy? For a Black woman to know her own constitutive connection to divinity does, I think, break the economy of this world. It’s “impossible” to think like that “here.” That realization is a call to end this world. But while Williams’ “survival/quality of life” model is a kind of drive, a self-aware compulsion toward the impossible, it must also be a kind of desire—a deep understanding that securing certain goods really will fulfill certain needs, and that God inheres in that (limited, failing) fulfillment. Survival is not a quietism that accepts the economy of the way the world is—Williams rightly exalts the sanctity of women who grind glass into the soup of their enslavers!—but neither, in this perspective, does divine violence appear as a totalizing disruption that ends economy as such.

Rose’s brilliant work has given me better ways to think about violence, trauma, failure, righteousness, innocence, and apophatic theology. She’s managed to navigate an impossibility herself, in taking the best insights of Žižek’s dalliance with theology while simultaneously exposing his own reactionary attachments. I’ve tried to think through some of the questions that arose, for me, in conversation with Rose’s book, but my questions emerge from awe and gratitude. In the effort to differentiate between the failures that produce and maintain innocence and the failures that struggle toward justice, drive rightly takes priority. And yet I wonder whether, against a clean division, the drives we need most are those contaminated by desire.

3 thoughts on “On Contaminating Drive with Desire and (not quite) Ending the World: A Theology of Failure Book Event

  1. Hi Eric, I’m thinking alongside similar questions in my response, though I think that when you write, “There is no fulfillment, no wholeness, but there is a world better than this one—and we should want it” you may be missing the alignment of that kind of claim with the discourse of the hysteric. The fear about being able to create a space of innocence by finding a way to recode or resubjectivize oneself as an ally makes sense, but I think that the “parallax shift” Marika traces in her book hinges on a recognition (against Žižek) that subjects have positionality in the social and that these positions matter. So, one cannot simply give up one’s white position, for example, and by an ally if one takes very seriously the ethical demand of the heretic, the witch, and the slave. I think that something like the cataphatic claim of “God is Black” actually moves us away from that hysteric discourse, because to think that is to think within the collapse of coherence. The positionality of these subjects have to be distinguished between their lived (experience) (thinking here of Du Bois and Fanon specifically). I don’t deny the power behind self-valorization, but from the perspective of position to say God is Black (which is to say, from within white social ontology, that God is Non-Being, abject, cast out, not even the rectum as a grave but the shit within the rectum) is to move past even denial into the collapse of denials. To valorize that, to think from that, I think, means that we can’t even want a better world, for what we want is utterly inconceivable within the language we have been given to make sense of ourselves.

  2. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks so much for these thoughts. I’m certain that I’m missing some of the complexity of the psychoanalytic moves that Marika makes in the text, and that my ineptitude with that body of thought leads me into misunderstanding.

    I certainly don’t think that material social positions don’t make a difference for what can be thought. To the extent that my paragraphs on Cone suggest that I (or anyone) could somehow give up whiteness in a conversion or forgiveness of some sort, I was moving too fast and I need to correct them. “Becoming Black with God,” for *me* as someone born into whiteness, is never going to be “finished” and is never going to be “good enough.” It can only happen in a way that is, in your words, “utterly inconceivable within the language we have been given to make sense of ourselves.” I recognize the danger of opening up a(nother) space for innocence in invoking Cone–especially for me in my social position–which is why Williams’ intervention is so important.

    The one intuition from my post that I want to stick behind, however inadequately I expressed it, is a practical/political one. That is, once we recognize that we don’t have any language or thought that even remotely approaches a world that we would want—what do we do next? How do we go on living in this world, where the language and thought that we are stuck with still does make some small difference to some small number of others? All my thinking about animals/animality has led me back to this question over and over, as has thinking through other problems. And this question—what do I do next?—won’t let me abandon a struggle where I find myself amidst people who are making this world different in ways that are not-bad. Fighting that fight, even if it’s not in the name of a world that I can want–and doing so without a narrative of redemption (now I’m the good guy, now I’m the innocent!)–feels necessary, feels like a drive. But I don’t know how to do that without wanting, *desiring,* the small differences that can be made.

    I don’t know if this makes any more sense than what I wrote above, but it’s another effort to stumble through the thoughts.

  3. Hi Eric,

    I see that what I wrote led to a deeper misunderstanding owing to my own lack of clarity. When I wrote, “So, one cannot simply give up one’s white position, for example, and by an ally if one takes very seriously the ethical demand of the heretic, the witch, and the slave” I didn’t mean to suggest that you thought anyone could convert out of whiteness and I certainly did not get that impression from your post (which I liked very much, by the way, and I too have wondered about how to keep doing the work distinguishing and not fall into good versioning). What I was trying to respond to was how I think Marika avoids creating a new space of innocence in her thinking of subject positionality within the framework laid out by Žižek.

    For me the relentlessness of what you described as the political/practical intuition is very much about drive, as I understand it, so I would agree with you. I think what makes it drive, though, is precisely the fact that you have to keep fighting even thought you know that it is doomed to failure. For me, I would perhaps put it very harshly, you have to keep fighting because another world is not possible. But here I find the Lacanian distinction (and so Žižek’s and Marika’s) between desire and drive difficult to hold in my mind. I struggled with it a lot and often fall back on the more univocal theory of desire in Deleuze and Guattari (where there is only desire and various sort of modes of its expression). Maybe some of what my post has in it will be interesting to read off of one another.

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