Miraculous & Extremely Fragile: A Theology of Failure Book Event response

In my book, I argue that for Žižek there is a difference between love according to desire, which is ‘to believe in a false vision of purity and perfection’, suppressing and disavowing the inconsistencies and imperfections of the one beloved; and love according to drive which confronts ‘imperfection and incompleteness in all of their grotesque materiality’ (139). I am so grateful for the close attention that the respondents to my book have paid to what I have written; for the probing questions which push at the incompleteness and inconsistencies what I have written. But, as I also write, ‘real love may resemble cruelty’; reading these responses has opened new questions for me and reopened questions I thought I had settled; has had me teetering on the edge of exhilaration and despair; has me sat, now, trying to do justice to the careful attention which has been given to me.

Contemporary academia proceeds for the most part according to Lacan’s discourse of the university, which demands that knowledge be produced for its own sake: we write because there is a gap in the literature, for the sake of productivity. Theology and philosophy have not shaken off the temptation of the master’s discourse, the desire to claim that this approach to the question is the only one which will produce the correct answer; that this starting point begins with the true origin; that this way of thinking about a problem will finally resolve it. But that’s not why I wrote this book.

I wrote this book because in the winter of 2007 I visited some friends in Manchester, who took me to a bookshop, where I happened to pick up a copy of Žižek’s In Defence of Lost Causes, which opens like this:

Things look bad for great Causes today, in a “postmodern” era when, although the ideological scene is fragmented into a panoply of positions which struggle for hegemony, there is an underlying consensus: the era of big explanations is over, we need “weak thought,” opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, w e should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention . . . If the reader feels a minimum of sympathy with these lines, she should stop reading and cast aside this volume.

It was, in a way, love at first sight. I mentioned this discovery to my MA supervisor at the time, who told me that there was someone else in the Theology department at Durham who was working on Žižek and sent me off to talk to him; all of which is to say that, having read one book by Žižek and one book which criticised Žižek from the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy, I embarked on my PhD with a vague hunch that Žižek’s problem, ‘how can you be a Marxist given the failures of Marxism in the twentieth century?’ was roughly analogous to my problem, ‘how can you be a Christian given the failures of Christianity over the entire history of Christianity?’

I wrote this book because, not really knowing what mystical theology was, I took a course on Christian mysticism in the third year of my undergraduate degree because it was taught by my favourite lecturer and fell for Dionysius, whose insistence on the inadequacy of all language for speaking about God seemed to offer some hope that I might be able to answer the question I was asking at the time, which at the time I probably would have phrased something like, “how can you realise that the word is complicated and still be passionate about Jesus”, and which now I would phrase more like, “how can you stop being an evangelical without turning into a liberal?”

I wrote this book, I suppose, because growing up my parents’ authority was always referred back to God as the final arbiter of right and wrong; because the only way to think myself out of their authority was to know more about God than they did; because my dad found Jesus partly as a way to escape his Jewish parents’ authority; because I started where I happened to find myself; because I couldn’t do anything else; because I wanted to.

One of the things that Žižek means when he insists on the dialectical unity of actual and possible, of contingency and necessity, is that Dolly Parton is right when she enjoins us to ‘figure out who you are and do it on purpose’. As Žižek puts it, that the ultimate ethical injunction is to assume ‘one’s Destiny as the highest (albeit forced) free choice’. We don’t choose who we are; we don’t choose where we start; we don’t choose what we want. The responsibility that Anthony (I think correctly) identifies as a central theme of my book is about the difference between desire and drive as the difference between being who we are, and doing it on purpose. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone start with Žižek; I absolutely wouldn’t recommend that anyone start with Christianity, unless they had to (I had to – how could I have done otherwise, then?). I wouldn’t start there myself if I were to write the book again because I am not the person I was when I started it. I am the person I have become as a result of trying to be faithful to the je ne sais quoi which drew me to them in the first place. I am the person I have become because I found that I could not be faithful to them without also betraying them, without also betraying myself.

The book is dedicated to my grandpa, Myer Rose. I had been thinking as I came to the end of writing the first draft about what it means to insist on Christianity as series of infidel fidelities, and what it meant to see Christianity as both a betrayal and a form of fidelity to the Judaism it was born from; what it meant to recognise my dad’s conversion as both a betrayal and a form of fidelity to his parents and to find myself the inheritor of that unfaithful fidelity. My grandpa died the same night I was in the library making the final edits to the PhD thesis the book was based on. I was thinking about his expressed wish to see his first great grandchild before he died and that in finishing my PhD I had failed him but also perhaps in some way been faithful to that desire. I finished my final edits to the manuscript just after I split up with my husband, because we decided that the best way to love each other was to end our marriage, which my own parents could not but see as a fundamental betrayal of the Christianity they had raised me in. ‘But Marika’, my dad asked me the first time we spoke on the phone after I broke the news to them, ‘do you still believe that Jesus is the son of God?’

To love something is always to struggle with the temptation to love it out of desire rather than drive; to see it as the solution to our problems, the neat answer to our questions, to desire its reproduction. For those of us who love something in Christianity, who love something that we have inherited from Christianity, the task of love is the work of insisting on that which is in Christianity more than itself even if this insistence results in the abortion of Christianity, its mutation into something unrecognisable.

Amaryah asks about the connection between the economic structuring of the relationship between God and the world, and the subject and the world, and the monetary economy of capitalism. I don’t know that I can fully answer that question, but two things seem important to me. First, the shift I identify between the medieval economy organised around God’s relationship to the world and the early modern economy organised around the sovereign individual’s relationship to the world roughly corresponds to Sylvia Wynter’s discussion of the shift from ‘Christian’ as the name for the exemplary human being, which functions to violently exclude those who are not Christians from the proper sphere of humanity to ‘Man’ as the name for the exemplary human being, which functions to violently exclude those who are, in the early modern period, deemed irrational and then, in later modernity, those who are not economically successful, from the proper sphere of humanity. Second, there is something to be said about the real abstraction Alfred Sohn-Rethel identifies as the process by which the social practise of monetary exchange gives rise to the idea of an absolute, universal measure of value outside of the sphere of changing human life; and about the process by which, Orlando Patterson argues, the social practice of slavery gives rise to the idea of freedom, both for human beings and for God. I don’t fully know how to say it yet, but this is where I would have to begin.

It is true that the figures of the slave, the heretic and the witch are not distinct in Christianity’s history, and that all are in different ways racial figures. In suggesting that all function as figures of sinthomosexuality I am suggesting that all come in different (though related) ways, at different times and places in Christianity’s history to figure Christianity’s constitutive excess, that which is excluded from it in order to give it coherence. Silvia Federici’s work, for example, can help us to understand the way in which the figure of the witch functions in late medieval and early modern Christianity, deeply entangled with the figure of the heretic and also the slave though functioning specifically as a figure of the threat to the reproduction of Christianity and Christians. Sylvia Wynter’s work, I think, helps us to track the shifting importance of Christianity, rationality and economic success in figuring Christianity/whiteness’s others.

This ties in to some of what Anthony writes about my demand to think Christian identity and theology from the position of its others – that what is more easily visible from these positions is precisely the incoherence of what is created by their exclusion. For Lacan, women are better able than men to grasp the truth of subjectivity, that we are not and cannot be sovereign masters of our own selves, though this is no guarantee that women will not desire, nonetheless to claim this fantasmatic power assumed to be possessed by men – as the history of white feminism bears ample testimony. Within a world founded on the valuation of freedom – given coherence by the practice of slavery – and on the institution of private property – it makes sense, I think, to argue that if we want to understand what it means to be a person we must start from the position of the slave, which is also the position of the person not merely lacking property but reduced to property; that is, to begin with Jared Sexton’s insistence on ‘the affirmation of the unsovereign slave – the affectable, the derelict, the monstrous, the wretched’ (The Vel of Slavery, 11).

This brings me to Alex’s post. Alex is of course right that where we start determines the parameters of what is thinkable for us. I started where I did because that’s where I happened to find myself, I suppose. But also I started there because that’s where I wanted to start. Of course the catastrophe is always happening; of course we should resist the desire to install a new master signifier. But how can we do that while something that deeply constitutes our being continues to insist? How can we hold together the need to face up to the incomprehensible violence and disaster all around us with the fact that we still experience pleasure, we are still drawn to love, to think, to connect? What is complex about Sexton’s insistence on the absolutization of deracination is both its insistence on a way of being outside of the logics of property and distinction which constitute the world – ‘not a politics of despair brought about by a failure to lament a loss, because it is not rooted in hope of winning’ (The Vel of Slavery, 11) – and also the sense that this insistence places us in absolute opposition to the world as it is, commits us to its destruction or (as Anthony suggests) deterritorialization.

Tapji‘s question, what does it mean to be a failure, to refuse the incorporation of failure into a narrative of redemption, gets at something Eric also gestures towards: that the difference between desire and drive is nothing more than the tiny difference of perspective that Žižek calls the parallax shift; perhaps what Pandolfo talks about as ‘the sirāṭ, the traverse or narrow bridge over the chasm of Hell; the bridge thinner than a blade or a thread, which will widen up like a highway to let across the saved, or instead shrink like a blade to make the damned fall, pushed down into eternal fire’, the sometimes ungraspably small but crucial difference between being what you are and doing it on purpose. Trying to locate and to maintain this distinction is, I think, what Žižek calls ‘the work of love’, occurring in ‘miraculous’ but ‘extremely fragile‘ moments. Desire is always tangled up with drive because the two are just different ways of relating to the same failure, the inconsistent and incomplete thing that we are. Žižek himself is notably uninterested in actually doing that work. This is true on a personal level, where although he insists on the potential of analysis to make possible the shift from desire to drive, he claims to have spent his time in analysis lying about his dreams because he was so afraid of the transformation which might emerge from being truthful). It is also true in the political context, where, as I’ve argued elsewhere, his preferred example of divine violence is not the general strike (which for Benjamin emerges as a kind of miracle but only on the basis of the difficult and painstaking work of political organisation and education which might eventually open up the possibility of a radical reorganisation of society) but the individualistic refusal of Bartleby which results only in the movement of the sphere of exploitation to a new location. Here I think we should take Žižek at his word rather than following the example he sets us.

Ben and Rajbir both ask questions about the coherence of ‘Christianity’ as a name for a heterogeneous collection of ideas, texts, people, and traditions. Ben’s response in particular, I think, highlights the central problem of identity which concerns Žižek throughout his work. One way to think about this, I think, is to see ‘Christianity’ as what Žižek (via Lacan) calls a ‘quilting point’, a first initial decision to name something or someone, which though an empty gesture, nonetheless functions as an act of creation. I am not the same person I was when I began writing the book; my own experience of myself is not the same as others’ experience of me. I am the result of everything and everyone that has happened to me; the only thing that makes me more than the sum of my parts, for Žižek, would be the very act of naming me; yet that empty gesture is not nothing, as the idea that ‘I’ exist, that I have agency, that I am not simply determined by everything that has gone into making me is the tiny inconsistency which means that I really am more than the sum of my parts, really am free. Something similar happens with Christianity, I think: what makes it one thing, enough that we can talk about it, is that we speak about it as if it is one thing, is the ways that the belief that Christianity has an essence has made it what it is. Christ, I am suggesting, is nothing more than the sum of all of the parts of Christianity except that there is also the idea that Christ somehow exceeds the sum of Christianity’s parts. And Christianity is, in some sense, nothing more than the idea that there is a distinction which can be made between Christians and non-Christians; which is also to say that Christianity is this relationship between Christianity and its others, and is the struggle over who counts as a Christian and who does not – a struggle which is, of course, engaged with by Christians outside of the West as well as within it.

The problem with transcendence, as I understand it, is this: classical Christian theology in the wake of Dionysius affirms that God is a different kind or order of being than creation, such that all of the language we have for God is wildly inappropriate for speaking about God. And yet, we still speak about God. Tonstad’s book takes aim at Trinitarian theology, which tends to connect up language about the interrelationships of divine persons with language about the interrelationships of human beings. This is a problem, for Tonstad, because it supposes that God is of the same kind or order of being as creation, and tends therefore to project onto God both the disorders of human life and society and also our proposed solutions to those orders. It draws God too much into the created world, entangling God in the failures of human society. Tonstad’s solution is to radically disentangle trinitarian language from political language: how we think about the trinity should not have to do with how we think about human relationality. Yet all of our language comes from the world; and so to insist on the absolute transcendence of God is simply to insist that we cannot speak about God; it is ‘identical with a materialist theology that insists that there is no outside of or other to the world, no guarantee of its meaning or resurrection, however discontinuous’. If transcendence is not contrastive, then it cannot be expressed in language at all; it might as well not exist: as both hard materialists and classical theologians insist, of course, it does not. I am suggesting, instead, not a total rejection of transcendence, but a materialist notion of transcendence as ‘that which disrupts the boundaries of what is from within, which interrupts the reproduction of the same, which is— like both birth and abortion— traumatic, risky, the meeting place of life and death, the sublime, and the horrific— and yet also always at risk of reincorporation into sameness’ (173).

Žižek’s work is obsessed in certain ways with wholeness and unity, with universalisms and totalities. This is because Žižek’s method is dialectical, his argument being that we cannot simply get out of ourselves, but must undergo a process of transformation by pushing at the contradictions which inhere within us. White Westerners, for Žižek, cannot simply get out of white Westernness by adopting another way of seeing the world. We can’t stop being what we are – and that desire to be wholly transformed is itself in many ways a legacy of white Westernness, of Christianity’s desire for conversion and innocence. We can’t get out of ourselves; we can’t get out of a world which, always deeply interconnected insofar as everything that exists is deeply interconnected. If Amy Hollywood – quoted in Rajbir‘s piece –  is right, maybe none of us can: ‘Today, who isn’t within Christianity’s orbit? Whose life isn’t determined by that horizon?’ I think what Žižek largely lacks, though, is something like Trotsky’s notion of uneven and combined development: that although everything is deeply and inescapably interconnected with everything else, is perhaps ultimately dialectically identical with everything else, nonetheless distinct identities do emerge, with their own distinct histories and internal logics, and can then encounter one another in ways which are deeply transformative. As I say in the book, Žižek’s crude ontology of subject, society and material world is limited in its capacity for thinking about these complexities – I’d be tempted here to look instead to Anthony’s work on ecology.

All of which is to say that, although in some ways nothing is outside of Christianity’s orbit – both because of the legacies of colonialism which Rajbir traces and (not unrelatedly) because Christianity is, as Marx says, ‘the special religion of capital’, that is not to say that all of us need to be concerned with it. Imagine being able to not be concerned with Christianity: what bliss. If Žižek were consistent with his ontology (which of course he is not), it ought to be possible to think any identity and our relation to it according to the logic of desire and drive, of constitutive exclusions and antagonisms. In writing about Christianity I am trying (consciously, anyway) less to escape it, or to hold onto it in mourning it, than to take responsibility for what I am – a Christian – because that is what has been given to me. I am thinking here in part of Daniel Boyarin’s argument that in inventing itself, Christianity also invents the notion of religion as that which can ‘be separated from ethnicity, nationality, language and shared history’, an identity which Judaism refuses (Border Lines, 8). In trying to think a Christianity that refuses to be a religion, I am hoping that we Christians might liberate our others ‘in order to begin the difficult work of learning how to love them’ (181). But we cannot, of course, demand that our love be returned; and sometimes the best way to love someone is to break up with them.