Never Enough; the Unanswerable Demand of the Heretic, the Whore, the Witch, and the Slave: A Theology of Failure Book Event

A Theology of Failure could be described as a book about taking responsibility. Not the responsibility invoked by conservatives and reactionaries whose demand is always put to those they cast as irresponsible: the poor, single mothers, the entire Black community, or whatever oppressed grouping of subject-positions is at the moment convenient to cast as disrupting society’s wholeness. Marika’s is a call to a form of responsibility that is normally disavowed by casting responsibility as adherence to the symbolic law. Grow up, get a job, settle down,  buy a house, have kids. Actions that are, in terms of their reality, impossible to achieve within the symbolic and ultimately life-denying and death-dealing when one tries too hard to achieve them. The responsibility that is denied by cleaving to these symbolic demands and falling into their snares is much harder to respond to.  It is the demand carried in the  ethical maxim (mis)attributed to Lacan: “do not give up on your desire.”[1]

This ethical axiom arguably misreads Lacan’s original claims, but has been developed by Žižek and Zupančič as a way to speak about the subtle shift from the logic of desire to drive.[2] For in not giving up on your desire one is caught up into the constant return to the question “what is my desire?” and finds that it is nameless and demands to not be turned away from in the making of a fetish as some object or name whose capture is impossible and so anxiety producing. This maxim speaks to the central importance of the concepts of desire and drive and their distinction in A Theology of Failure. Anyone who reads the book (or the responses collected here) cannot fail to see that these concepts are the central theoretical engine driving this profound investigation and inquiry into the major philosophical and theological problems (and thus ethical and political) treated throughout and its success is the result of Marika’s own refusal to give up on this desire. The point of this work, Marika tells us, is to read Christian theology according to the logic of drive versus desire (13). This is not a purely intellectual project, though, since the point of thinking Christian theology in this way is to understand Christian identity and ultimately to abolish the fantasies of wholeness and coherence that Christian theology produces for that identity, for that subject-position in distinction to others.

Others have already commented on Marika’s use of Žižek and its subtle brilliance. Despite Žižek’s presence in the subtitle, A Theology of Failure is not a secondary source, but a use of Žižek’s thinking and concepts beyond what he has been capable of producing owing to internal weaknesses and contradictions in his thought.  For me the most important part of her critical engagement with Žižek has to do with her rethinking of his failed universalism as regards the subject. Marika’s diagnosis and critical intervention regarding Žižek’s weaknesses is what produces her striking line that, “Only by fully confronting the violent exclusions by which Christianity has constituted itself, by insisting on the truth that is revealed from the position of the whore, the witch, the heretic, or the slave might we aim at the divine violence, which […] may well take the form of figuring Christianity’s abortion (149).” In my response to A Theology of Failure I want to trace the underlying theory of the subject—really a theory of subjects as they exist within a social ontology—as that theory emerges from these distinct but intertwined concepts of desire and drive and then consider the different position these subjects take with regard to a return to the One or the end of the world.

Marika reads Neoplatonism’s conception of the One through the psychoanalytic lens of a return to wholeness. The trauma of becoming a subject mirrors the trauma of the coming to be of all things. On this particular reading of Neoplatonism the being of difference emerges from the distinction that marks the painful separation of all things from the One, even as they are all mournfully dependent upon the One and horrifically interdependent upon every other thing. The coming to be of a subject, following Lacan and Žižek, emerges from a similar split produced by distinction with such distinctions produced through language. Language is a place of contradiction for the subject, just as it is a place of contradiction ultimately for the theoretical enterprise. Marika tell us, “[The cut] can be understood as the contradiction inherent in the subject’s entry into language, which simultaneously enables her to have a conscious sense of her own identity and enables her identity forever with words she did not create, which speak her as much as she speaks them and tie her to structures of relationships and sociality that she does not control (59).”

The conservative demand to be responsible is related to this split. For that demand is tied to the demand to conform to those “structures of relationships and sociality” or what we might call the world our subjects are forced to populate. What Žižek has failed to see and Marika deftly points us to is the difference that one’s position as a subject makes in terms of the attendant subjectivation. Thus, where Žižek ignores race and gender as distractions from class, Marika turns us to those subject positions as holding within them the true kernel of universal freedom. This is expressed most clearly in The Combahee River Collective Statement where it is claimed that the freedom of Black women makes necessary freedom for everyone else, since the freedom of Black women requires the abolition of all structures of oppression. That is because the subject-position of Black women is fundamentally negative in terms of the social ontology we inhabit, whereas the singular subject of psychoanalysis (especially more conservative readings of Lacan’s theory of the subject) is a subject that may find some kind of way to make peace with the contradictions inherent in her subjectivation. There is no such peace for the Black woman, or, at different historical junctures, for the heretic, the whore, the witch, or the slave. These are all subject-positions that are created not by those subjects that come to bear these names—even if those who live out those positions may find ways to valorize the name—but by those subjects who need these negations to exist in order for their own fantasy of coherence as a subject.

This is what I take Marika to be demanding when she says that we must think Christian identity and theology from these subject-positions. That is, we are to think from the position of incoherence, negation, terrifying pleasure, and all the other anxieties that plague the desirous-subject. Precisely because those who live through these positions, in being subject to violence, brutality, and oppression, cannot really be recuperated into the logic of desire when one valorizes their powers of negation. Of course the Christian-secular West can—and has—colonized some of these positions and converted them into positive names that allow for Christianity to reproduce, rather than abolish, itself. There is the tokenizing of Black and feminist theologians, the queering of this or that Church practice, the appropriation of various counter-cultural spiritual practices, and so on. Marika herself recognizes this when she writes that her attempt, “like all such attempts, […] risks reincorporation into theological respectability so as to ensure Christianity’s reproduction (150).” On this point the work of Deleuze and Guattari is useful for thinking through how desire is subject to deterritorialization (what we might translate as the the destructive nature of drive) and reterritorialization (the way even the incomplete capture of the real death drive through the discourse of the death drive can be put to use in the service of normativity). The trap would be to begin to treat the names of the subject-positions as the negating power of abolition, rather than to treat the way such subject positions prior to reterritorialization are lived. Lee Edelman’s work is valuable precisely because the way it is able to say that when the queer becomes a positive name—say for the goodness of the nation—it loses its positionality and power as the sinthomosexual.

Much of what I have said here merely mirrors the brilliant reading of Dionysius via Lacan’s four discourses (when I first read this chapter I remember being quite simply floored by the way it opened up both Dionysius and Lacan and is, for me, the heart of the book). This might help us to understand certain misreadings of both Afropessimism and antisocial queer theory. These are often discourses of negation taken to mean refusal or a “simple” no-saying to the world or sociality as such. Within Lacan’s four discourses of the Master, the University, the Hysteric, and the Analyst it might seem logical to align these negative theoretical projects with the Hysteric, since her discourse is that of refusal. One possible advantage of this would be that the Hysteric cannot be reincorporated back into respectability (I speak, in some sense, from experience). In the refusal that comes from the subject-position of the queer and the slave (and other lived forms of negativity) there is an unrelenting howl of protest at the way things are, at the wrong state of things. Yet, we are told that according to Žižek’s reading of the four discourses, this discourse remains caught up in the logic of desire: “The divided subject still directs her demands at the master signifier, hoping for answers (165).” One need only change some of the terms here to find aptly summarized a persistant misreading of Afropessimism. But the difficult lesson of many of those works is that some subjects are not simply divided once, but carry the scars of innumerable divisions, in some sense inhabiting division itself in endless repetition. These seemingly hysterical discourses serve to produce an ethical call for those who, like Marika, place themselves under these subject positions as the condition for true universality, a true abolition of the world.

These negativities may produce a hysterical discourse from one perspective, but only because those who are sick in their desire to be good and innocent confuse the hysterical refusal as something that can be answered. Jared Sexton describes the truly analytical position of this negativity in his recent Black Men, Black Feminism: Lucifer’s Nocturne writing of such a call from Black feminism: “What complicates this ethical call immediately is not simply that it is impossible […] but rather that it is strictly unanswerable (55).” The refusal of at least the slave, and perhaps the heretic, the witch, and the whore, is not the “simply refusal” of the hysteric (168). It is the refusal that calls forth the baroque complexity of silence.

Marika’s crossed-reading of the four discourses and Dionysius’ mystical theology of naming, the proliferation of names, denials, and the collapse of denial produces a way towards the self-abolition of A Theology of Failure, one that names its own death drive. The radicalization of Lacan by Žižek is one, pace Marika, Žižek himself has to turn away from. For in the collapse of denials we are placed within a different kind of return to the One. Not where we return to the One as a return to wholeness, but where, when all distinctions fade away, where language itself collapses even as it speaks with pure pleasure, we find ourselves back not at the One without divison but the One which always was division as oneness. In the political register I take this to translate what Frank B. Wilderson writes in Red, White, & Black,

“For the Black, freedom is an ontological, rather than experiential, question. There is no philosophically credible way to attach an experiential, a contigent, rider onto the notion of freedom when one considers the Black—such as freedom from gender or economic oppression, the kind of contingent riders rightfully place on the non-Black when thinking freedom. Rather, the riders that one could place on Black freedom would be hyperbolic—though no less true—and ultimately untenable: freedom from the world, freedom from Humanity, freedom from everyone (including one’s Black self) (22, my emphasis).”

The hyperbolic freedom of Black women is the abolition of the world and comes with the abolition, not just of that world, but of our very selves as well. For those of us who inhabit white subject-positions, there is good news in the abolition of our identity and there is good reason to rebel against the philosophies and theologies that have created us, even as we must do so by taking responsibility for our gifted and poisoned identity. To do this kind of unfaithful theology or philosophy is to abolish those philosophies and theologies built upon the primary practice of division, of decision, of separating this from that. To be a faithful infidel to the task of philosophy is somehow to keep thinking but without the foundational move of distinction. To not give up on our desire to continue to live for those moments of jouissance, of the destruction of the wrong state of things, to enjoy our negation of the world, but without ceding responsibility for who we are within the world, without ever thinking that this work makes us innocent or good. The work of thinking an infidel fidelity to Christianity gives way to clamorous silence of jouissance where the distinctions of fidelity and infidelity no longer function, where the language that speaks them no longer finds its voice, the mouth and tongue taken up with the real and la petite mort being nothing but a name for what is lived as the collapse of denial.

[1] Though popularly attributed to Lacan in circles heavily influenced by the Ljubljana Lacanian School, including Alain Badiou who is fond of citing the quote, the claim that this is Lacan’s motto is not supported by the text it is drawn from. The passage that reads “ne pas céder sur son désir”—translated by Zupančič as “do not give up on your desire!”— reads in the English as “First, the only thing one can be guilty of is of giving ground relative to one’s desire (Lacan, Seminar VII, 321).” It is interesting how in book after book this motto is quoted without any citation to the source, because there is no source for the motto. I’m sure there is something interesting to say about this psychoanalytically and I am sure it has something to do with the need to put these words in the mouth of the father in order to be able to say them, but perhaps we can say them anyway even if the father never did.

[2] Readers who are interested in the debates about this are invited to consider the work of Marc De Kesel <https://marcdekesel.weebly.com/english4.html> who appears to have been somewhat obsessed with correcting this reading of Lacan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.