Žižek, Revolutionary Violence and the Church as Lacanian Real

In light of increased calls to violence, rioting and looting by voices on the (extreme and not so extreme) Left, I thought I might share a passage I wrote in the past on Žižek, his propensity to revolutionary violence and how the call to take up arms — when examined from within even as ‘radical’ a theoretical framework as his — is less ‘revolutionary’ than it sounds.

My full thesis is available at the Monash open-access portal.

Here goes:

Slavoj Žižek does not shy away from physical violence as a revolutionary means and, in fact, promotes it by insisting that armed struggle may be necessary in order to transform the coordinates of any given system. Žižek intimates that violence is a ‘work of love’ (see note 1) and that revolutionary violence which discards, differs and divides is an ultimate act of freedom. He quotes approvingly Frederic Jameson’s comparison of revolutionary violence with the Weberian analysis of the Calvinist logic of wealth: whilst wealth is not the ends, it certainly acts as a sign that one has attained the favor, and thus the salvation, of God.

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Although he rejects violence as an ultimate goal, the presence of revolutionary violence is proof that new change is occurring (Žižek 2006, pp. 380–381). Žižek insists on a proper sort of violence needed to, ‘break out of an ideological, double-bind predicament…Even if it is not physical violence, it is extreme symbolic violence…it will explode as a more shattering experience. And this is, I think, what is needed today, this awareness that true changes are painful’ (Žižek & Daly 2004, p. 121).

Žižek (2006) even compares the need for violence to breaking eggs as a pre-condition for making an omelette, except he reversed the analogy by asserting that the activity of egg-breaking will most certainly result in an omelette. Any a priori rejection of violence is thus deemed as a desire of ‘revolution without revolution’ (pp. 380–381).

Photo by Julio Cortez/Associated Press

For Žižek, true political acts require the gesture of a radical negativity which persists even after the revolution, into the post-revolutionary acts of reconstruction and creating a new social order which, far from surpassing the negativity upon which it is founded, instead embodies it (pp. 381–382).

Political emancipation within a Žižekian frame is thus incurably violent, with political revolution being almost synonymous with what Žižek (2009) terms ‘divine violence’, that is to say, a violence that is devoid of any purpose or grounding in the Big Other and as such is divine (2009, pp. 484–485).

Contra Žižek, though, an authentic (and thus all the more radical) Christian politico-theological model of change must dispense with such inclinations towards aggression.

As Marcus Pound (2008) highlighted, Žižek’s theory of the political act, itself predicated on the Christological sacrifice, ironically undermines what is truly revolutionary about the Christian faith─one which refuses the path of violence─and in so doing remains caught within a sacrificial system of exchange instead of embracing the truly radical political act (p.23).

The paradox of Žižek is that he recognizes the hopelessness of the vicious cycle of retribution and payment but fails to see how his own solution, in the form of a violence so transgressive of the reigning deadlock it can only be described as ‘divine’, itself serves to accentuate this destructive system (Pound 2008, pp. 41–46).

Furthermore, if Simon Critchley (2012) is right, it appears that Žižek has rather arbitrarily translated or constituted divine violence to feed his fantasy that, ‘the overcoming of imperfection, sin and guilt through the intervention of the divine order into human experience, the miraculous incarnation of the sublime into the everyday…it is the fantasy of an act of cataclysmic, redeeming violence that does not emanate from us…but which transforms the situation without the intervention of the will’ (p.242). This is to say that the label of the divine is used as nothing more than a sophisticated-sounding excuse for bloodshed in order to get one’s way (see Note 2).

There are alternate readings of Žižek to the ones proffered above. One could instead see Žižek as merely a provocateur whose intention is to shock thinkers and activists into socio-political action. Perhaps he views it better to either do something radically authoritarian (perhaps in the form of a new Master-figure for society), or terribly insane (like incite an armed struggle) or absolutely nothing at all instead of merely engaging in pseudo-activity. Žižek’s endorsement of violence could really be a manner of objecting against localized acts of fetishistic disavowal the ultimate purpose of which is to make the system run more smoothly (Žižek 2008, pp. 216–217). Here Žižek may find an affinity with the idea that the church has been simply complicit in perpetuating the concerns of capitalism (Milbank 2010, pp. 28–30) and even, given the inoperativeness of religious organisations as a voice against State oppression, indirectly spurring dissent towards more secrecy and violence (Bretherton 2010, p.35).

What Žižek fails to grasp, though, is how a community of self-sacrificial service and forgiveness — the church — can precisely embody the agent and fore-runner of radical change sans the need for bloodshed. Christians can accept the notion that Christ inaugurated a new domain independent of the systemic network of values and trajectories, and even the idea that his death entailed the ‘death of God’ as the Big Other, without tolerating the notion that violence and armed struggle is even remotely necessary.

The cross of Jesus, and the ‘weak’ surrender to the world’s violence that it embodies and entails, declares precisely that, ‘out of the very great hopelessness and inefficacy of love resisted and annihilated, there flowers forth reinvigorating and transforming energies which are even greater yet’ (Lewis 2001, p. 398).

In this sense, the church mirrors the Lacanian Real in the world, that force which both resides within the Symbolic Order yet threatens to undo it. As the little piece of the real, the very body of God, in the world, the community of faith rejects the narcissism and obscene fantasies of the Imaginary, refusing to carve social spaces up in their own image, instead reflecting the glory of Christ to each other and the world (2 Corinthians 3:18; Wright 1991, pp. 185–189).

Instead of ‘redemptive’ violence creating mayhem and chaos, there is the systemic violence of (Christian) redemption itself.

Notes

1. In contrast to love, Žižek (2012) ties the idea of ‘hatred’ to the Lacanian notion of the Real as the kernel of a subject’s being, declaring that true love for a person or entity is precisely to ‘hate’ everything about the individual or event out of love for the traumatic core at his or its heart. As per the Lacanian injunction, ‘I love you, but there is something in you more than yourself than I love…so I destroy you’ (p. 655). In other words, hatred is sometimes the only proof of love and the domain of pure violence─a domain outside law or legal power, neither sustained by law nor founding it─is love’s domain itself (Žižek 2008, p. 204).

2. By making physical violence a primary option, Žižek — for all his talk of a nascent shattering Real─remains confined within an imaginary shaped by a certain kind of power, namely the power to destroy. It is thus insightful (but not very surprising) that Žižek bypasses the notion of forgiveness as at all central to the Christian worldview. This is a logical extension of the fact that the Žižekian Christ did not come to undo the world’s evils and sins; he came to wipe clean the context in which evil and sin were defined. The primary ‘problem’ of the world, in fact, was people’s belief in and reliance on God himself. Christ’s sacrifice was, thus, an act of releasing people from the idea of an Otherizing deity ushering in the Holy Spirit which is nothing other than the space of the community of believers, one extracted from all existing social-symbolic bonds (Žižek 2009b, p. 295). ‘God dies and is resurrected itself as the Holy Ghost, as the form of collective belief’ (Žižek 2012, p. 115)

References:

Bretherton, L., 2010. Christianity & Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Critchley, S., 2012. Faith of the Faithless, London: Verso.

Lewis, A., 2001. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Milbank, J., 2010. Paul Against Biopolitics. In C. Davis, J. Milbank, & S. Žižek, eds. Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, pp. 21–73.

Pound, M., 2008. Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Wright, N.T., 1991. The Climax of the Covenant : Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, London: T&T Clark.

Žižek, S. & Daly, G., 2004. Conversations With Žižek, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Žižek, S., 2006. The Parallax View, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Žižek, S., 2012. Less Than Nothing: Hegel in the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

Žižek, S., 2008. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, New York: Picador.

Žižek, S., 2009a. Dialectical Clarity vs the Misty Conceit of Paradox. In C. Davis, ed. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?ox or Dialectic?. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 243–315.

Žižek, S., 2009b. The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity. In C. Davis, ed. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?ox or Dialectic?. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 24–109.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.