Tag Archives: religion

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 2

So we are sent back to the passage already quoted, to scan it again for clues:

In the early 1920s, a number of people active in philosophy, sociology and theology were planning a gathering. Most of them had switched from one denomination to another; what they had in common was their emphasis on newly acquired religion, and not the religion itself. They were all dissatisfied with the idealism that still dominated [German] universities at the time. Philosophy moved them to choose, out of freedom and autonomy, what has been known since at least Kierkegaard as positive theology. 

What jumps out now is that the men in question were all converts (not strictly true of the Patmos Circle, but perhaps true of the particular conference that Adorno is describing — who knows)? So maybe that’s the problem. But then why would that be a problem? You could begin by asking yourself: Do you typically have a beef with people who leave their religion for another — or who get God for the first time? Adorno also remarks that they had all converted in a Kierkegaardian spirit, and this might seem significant. Adorno, we know, was sufficiently interested in Kierkegaard to have written his PhD dissertation about him. So maybe that’s the problem — not conversion as such, just the Danish kind. Maybe that’s how we can tell the difference between the religious thinkers that Adorno warmed to and the ones he had no patience for. Rosenstock and Rosenzweig were existentialists; Walter Benjamin was not. But here, too, a complication opens up. Key figures in the Patmos circle were converts in the ordinary sense: Rosenstock was born into a secular Jewish family, but converted to Christianity as a teenager. The anti-fascist Protestant minister Hans Ehrenberg likewise converted from Judaism in his 20s. His cousin Rudolf Ehrenberg wasn’t exactly a convert, but was baptized Lutheran by his assimilated Jewish father, which is close. (Let’s poke around the family tree: Both Ehrenbergs were cousins of Franz Rosenzweig’s. And Rudolf’s niece was Olivia Newton-John’s mother. And Hans’s nephew was the father of the British comedian who created Blackadder.)

        The problem is that if we’re talking about Kierkegaard, then conversion might not have its ordinary meaning. I’ll see if I can’t put across a few core Kierkegaardian positions, and I’ll emphasize the ones that mattered most to the existentialists. We can begin with the idea that you have to choose yourself. Society is the domain of conformity and routine and a muddled, huddling thoughtlessness. Chances are that on any given day, you just do what everybody else is doing. You do the expected thing. Nobody living under these circumstances, which is of course most people, is even remotely an individual. Your task, then, is to become an individual, and Kierkegaard has some strong beliefs about how you might go about this. The first thing to know is that philosophy won’t help. Philosophy, after all, is keyed to the universal; it wants to be able to make claims that will hold true for all people at all times — and that’s not a promising path for anyone seeking to individuate. Philosophy is just a more recondite way of becoming no particular person. The only way to achieve individuality is to be committed to something, to be fully dedicated to something outside yourself — though you can already tell from what I’ve just written that your commitment won’t proceed from philosophy and to that extent won’t be rationally defensible. You won’t be able to give compelling reasons for holding the particular commitment that you do — reasons that other intelligent people would have to grant are cogent.

      Now Kierkegaard’s thinking on this matter is impeccably Protestant — and not just generically evangelical, but specifically Anabaptist, though that’s one of those explanations that probably needs explaining in turn. Anabaptism is the name for the Protestant sects who oppose infant baptism — who regard it as ungodly, in other words, to baptize babies, to induct newborns into a church without their consent and with no inkling of their actual standing with God. Baptism, on this view, is meant to follow on from a conversion experience, of a kind that a young child is unlikely to have and as a seal of one’s new openness to God — and as a cleansing, obviously, and a second birth. Ana- is a Greek prefix meaning “again” and refers to the early stages of the movement, when adult believers would have had to rinse away the false and infantile sprinklings of their native churches by getting baptized anew. The German word for Anabaptist means “re-dunker” or “double dipper.”

    The thing to know about Kierkegaard, then, is that he was profoundly hostile to what we might call “cultural Christianity” — a society in which most people are Christian by default, because they were raised that way. (The last book he saw through to publication was his Attack Upon Christendom.) Conversion in the specifically Kierkegaardian sense might therefore involve leaving one church for another, but it needn’t. It might just mean committing with one’s whole being to the institution of which was already nominally a member. In this framework, conversion, commitment, and the second baptism group tightly together. Franz Rosenzweig thus belongs in Rosenstock’s company even though he didn’t convert to Christianity, precisely because he very nearly converted before deciding not to: “Also bleibe ich Jude. … It looks like I’m staying a Jew,” but for real this time — which is the sound of Judaism remaking itself on the model of Baptistry, a Judaism for born-agains.

 Adorno, in fact, points out one of the more distinctive features of conversion — that it is chosen religion, religion practiced freely and by autonomous people. But then that can hardly be the problem. Surely freedom and autonomy are the very best things about the Kierkegaardian program. Let’s stick with the Anabaptists. The Amish famously tolerate among their teenagers all manner of ungodly behavior: wearing jewelry, signing up for Instagram, playing X-Box off of farmhouse generators, binge-watching Fast and Furious movies, gathering at the end of country roads to listen to hip-hop and drink Miller Lite. There is a general understanding, in other words, that a sixteen-year-old Amish person is not yet genuinely Amish and that the ordinary rules of Amish society therefore don’t apply. What’s at stake in this is perhaps best phrased like so: Being Amish is not an ethnicity. Americans at large tend to ethnicize the Amish, because Americans ethnicize everybody. The Amish even ethnicize their non-Amish neighbors and anyone who, like, drives a car, who are known collectively as “the English.” But the Amish do not ethnicize themselves. They are not “the Pennsylvania Dutch.” Young German-speakers in Lancaster County are only in some very qualified sense Amish, and their teenaged brothers and sisters are even less Amish than that, in a visible state of suspension, with the choice in front of them whether to be Amish or not. The creed of these horse-and-buggy traditionalists, then, is in core respects anti-traditional, premised on the conviction that custom is no-one’s fate, that heritage has claimed no-one in advance; and this goes back to a few of the key tenets of all sectarian Protestantism: that no-one can make you believe anything, that no-one should be forced into a church against their will or conscience. Milton called this the promise of “Christian freedom.”

      The other point to make here is that critical theorists and their cousins have often written in favor of conversion. It is thus hardly obvious that a radical philosopher would have to look askance at the experience of re-birth. Three examples will clinch the case.

         1) The core Sartrean position begins with the idea (again) that you have to choose yourself. You have to choose yourself; *and* you have to know that you have chosen yourself, you have to keep that idea in front of you; *and* you have to be ready to keep choosing yourself ongoingly; *and* you have to grant others all possible latitude to choose themselves. Conversion actually plays two distinct roles in this scheme: First, Sartre thought of Being and Nothingness — most of it anyway — as a close description of what it was like for a person to live without having arrived at this understanding. And his word for that arrival — for breaking through the reifying and identitarian delusions of ordinary existence — was “conversion.” A person, if she’s lucky, converts out of mauvaise foi. Second, nothing guarantees that I will continue to choose my personhood in the future in just the same way that I have in the past. (That’s a silly sentence, right? — because if there were a guarantee, then it wouldn’t be a choice. Sartre framing my selfhood as a perpetual choice has already abolished the guarantee.) The possibility always stands that I will encounter an “instant,” a moment of rupture, an ending-beginning, where my earlier project — my earlier personhood — is terminated and another one opens before me. The ongoing possibility and occasional reality of conversion vouches for my freedom, for a self that cannot be made intelligible via biography or some personal past.

       2) For a while, Zizek was pushing a theory of what he called subjective suicide. Let’s start with the idea that all of us spend nearly all of our lives cocooned in ideology, social convention, and pseudo-sociological delusion — a set of more or less specious understandings of “how the world works.” Eventually, though, any one of us is going to have experiences that the social-symbolic order does not cover, and Lacanian wisdom holds that these experiences are bound to be deeply unpleasant, since anything that is compatible with that order will immediately get incorporated into it, absorbed into one of the pat narratives that we already tell about ourselves and our society, which means, in turn, that anything that lies outside that order is incompatible with it, ergo a threat to our ordinary understandings of the world and ourselves. Most of the time, these encounters with the Real don’t amount to much; they aren’t much more than eerie smudges on the screen of your experience. It is always possible, though, that an encounter with the Real will, for an interval, sunder your ties with the social-symbolic order, propelling you out of your accustomed social “reality,” and in the process obliterating all of your socially entangled perceptions of yourself: your “identity.” Lacan himself gives this experience the innocuous name of “the act,” which makes it all the more alarming to realize that the technical term for the resulting condition is “psychosis.” Zizek seems to get it right, tonally, when he calls it subjective suicide, though we might also just say: Sometimes you snap. Here’s Zizek: ‘The act differs from an active intervention (action) in that it radically transforms its bearer (agent): the act is not simply something I “accomplish”—after an act, I’m literally “not the same as before.” In this sense, we could say that the subject “undergoes” the act (“passes through” it) rather than “accomplishes” it: in it, the subject is annihilated and subsequently reborn (or not).’ This, then, is the Lacanian account of conversion: your temporary reduction to nothing; psychotic Anabaptism.

        3) Badiou’s theory of the “truth-event” is the Lacanian act’s benign double. Sometimes — not often — we have an experience that strikes us as surpassingly important, something that hits us as anomalously true and real and right, an experience that leaves us feeling transformed and that suspends the normal order of the day: “This changes everything.” For Badiou, then, ethics is simply a matter of attending to those experiences — being open to them, letting ourselves be changed by them, and then resolving to stay changed, not to let ourselves bend gradually back to the norm and expectation and set-point. Until you have been called, there is simply no way for you to live morally. All ethics is an ethics of conversion.

     All I mean to say here is that radical philosophy furnishes some rather attractive defenses of conversion, which means we’ll have to account for Adorno’s not following them.

     Adorno also remarks that the Patmos group was religiously mixed; its members didn’t have a religion in common. He doubtless has this one gathering in mind, but his point would hold just as well for the New Thinkers at large. The Rosenstock-Rosenzweig correspondence is often held up as one of the twentieth century’s great feats of Judeo-Christian dialogue. Die Kreatur was published under the direction of three editors: a Protestant, a rogue Catholic, and a Jew (that last would be Martin Buber). It is hard to see these efforts as anything but a benignly ecumenical exercise. By the time Adorno wrote these words, Germans had been attacking each other on confessional grounds for more than four hundred years, often lethally: Schmalkadic Wars and  Kulturkämpfe and Judenhetze. It will come as a surprise, then, to realize that this interdenominationalism is a big part of what is bothering Adorno.

         We’ll have to keep reading to figure out why. The men in question had all taken a religious turn. A new passage:

However, they were less interested in the specific doctrine, the truth content of revelation, than in a disposition or cast of mind. To his slight annoyance, a friend [of mine], who was at that time attracted by this circle, was not invited. He was—they intimated— not authentic enough. For he hesitated before Kierkegaard’s leap, suspecting that any religion con­jured up out of autonomous thinking would subordinate itself to the latter, and would negate itself as the absolute which, after all, in terms of its own conceptual nature, it wants to be. 

I’m going to fill in a few details, and then we can see what they add up to. We know from Adorno’s papers that the friend in question was Siegfried Kracauer. If you’re reading that name for the first time, you could, just for now, think of him as the other Walter Benjamin, a second German-Jewish intellectual, close to Adorno, a good decade his senior, transfixed by popular culture in a way that Adorno manifestly was not, determined to remake thought around the experience of modern cities, and with a great many illuminating things to say about photography and film. (But then Adorno met Kracauer in his late teens, which means that in T.W.A.’s biography, he came first. Benjamin appears as a kind of second Kracauer. Also: You have to be able to imagine a Benjamin who was able to hold down a job at a major newspaper and who managed to make it out of France.)

        Apparently one of the Patmos people told Kracauer that he was inauthentic. I’m sure you don’t need to be told that no-one was accusing him of being watered down to suit American tastes, like he was a corrupted version of Kracauer the way they cook it back home. The existentialist doctrine of “authenticity” tends to involve variations of the following claims:

        -You need to know that you choose yourself, that you choose your identity, choose your way of living, choose your fundamental commitments. However you are, you weren’t just born that way.

          -Equally, then, you need to be willing to own yourself — to be candid about your commitments and to take responsibility for your personhood, for your way of being in the world. The German word for “authenticity” — the one in Adorno’s original title — is Eigentlichkeit, which comes from the word eigen, which is the everyday adjective that designates something of one’s own: “I brought my own book.” “I brought mein eigenes Buch.” Its closest cognate in German is Eigentum, which means “property” — what you own. To be “authentic,” then, is to be your own person and to be willing to own the person that you are.

-If your fundamental commitments line up in some sense with those of your culture — and it is the hallmark of right-wing existentialism that it considers this always your best option — then the task in front of you is to be in some now fully committed way what up until now you had been unthinkingly. If you wake up at 17 and realize that you have been raised more or less as a Jew and that other people regard you as Jewish, then it is up to you to commit to your Judaism and to adopt it as a project. (And yes, equally: If you wake up at 17 and realize that you have been raised more or less as a Russian, then it is up to you to commit to your Russianness…) This is where the existentialist notion of “authenticity” rejoins vernacular concerns with race and ethnicity and bad Chinese food: You go from being an x to being a real x.

   And then there’s this bit about “the Kierkegaardian leap.” That’s what English speakers usually refer to as a “leap of faith,” though Kierkegaard scholars love to point out that he never actually used that phrase. They also tend to object that the term, having first been invented by K’s Anglo-Saxon readers, then gets extracted from the ironies and pseudonymous obliquities of his writing and turned into some kitschy, blog-ready philosopheme — which is, of course, all the more reason for us to pay attention to it. The version that has come down to us mostly gets routed through the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who was one of the key figures in the Kierekegaard revival who will turn out to be one of Adorno’s prime targets in this book. It’s his version of the leap we need to know about here.

         The first point to make about Jaspers is that he was a dualist: He thought that the human mind was bifurcated into two fundamentally different domains. Unlike many of his existentialist cousins, Jaspers had no objection to science and reason as such. They aren’t really the problem; they’re just grand as far as they go. There’s no reason to call into question what the scientists have figured out about non-human nature. Science will pass all but the most stringent epistemological tests. But if I say that they are grand as far as they go, then I am implying, of course, that they also have limitations. They can’t go just anywhere. Crucially, science and reason can’t tell us how to live — can’t tell us what to care about — can’t tell us what kind of people we want to be. I can become quite learned — I can bone up on string theory and evolutionary biology and the latest research into the Haitian Revolution — and I can reflect carefully on what I’ve learned. But none of this amassed knowledge can tell me what to do with my life. That’s the dualism: There are some problems, a great many problems, that we can approach with the tools of science; and there are other problems that we have to learn to think about in some fundamentally different way. For anyone interested in the history of philosophy, one of the more unusual features of Jaspers is that he thought of himself as a Kantian; he knew himself to be devising an existentialist Kantianism or to be offering Kierkegaardian answers to Kantian prompts. Kant’s first Critique vindicates science (and other types of empirical knowledge), while insisting that the mind will nonetheless press on, riskily, to some non-empirical notion of the world, the self (or soul or psyche), and God. Existentialism, then, picks up where science leaves off. What, after all, are we supposed to do about all those issues where science and knowledge can’t help? Maybe now’s the moment to pause to ask yourself: What is your basic orientation to the world? What other orientations would be possible? What are your fundamental commitments? Jaspers’s point — and this is how the “leap of faith” has often been understood — is that you are going to have to choose those commitments — some commitments, maybe an overriding commitment — and make your peace with your knowledge that this commitment is in some sense groundless: sorely under-justified. You’ve chosen *this* commitment; you could have chosen another. Jaspers has a lot to say about the dualism of science and commitment: about the danger of treating existential matters as matters of knowledge and the even graver danger of trying to duck those fundamental existential choices.

      This last must be the accusation that was leveled against Kracauer, more or less: that he refused to grant that all convictions, including nominally secular ones, resemble religious belief; that he couldn’t bring himself to announce a commitment of a basically religious kind; that he thought maybe he could get by without commitments; that he was no leaper. Of course, Adorno also gives us — and implicitly endorses — Kracauer’s counterclaim: “He suspected that any religion that has been sworn to out of autonomous thinking would subordinate itself to the latter, and would negate itself as the absolute which by the light of its own concept it wants to be.” There are a few different issues that need to be teased out here. Adorno shares Kracauer’s exasperation with what looks like a contradiction in the existentialist position. To see this, we’ll need to bring into play the opposite of autonomy, which is heteronomy — the condition of being ruled from without — not giving-yourself-the-law, but having-the-law-imposed-upon-you. Adorno’s premise is plausible enough: He seems to think that religion is fundamentally an exercise in heteronomy, for which the Christian’s ordinary word is “revelation.” The law comes to the Christian from some external source: from the Catholic’s gradual training into Church tradition and discipline; from the scripturalist’s painstaking study of Holy Writ; from the spiritualist’s resolve to wait for God’s “leading.” Adorno’s point is that you can’t sincerely arrive at heteronomy non-dogmatically and via your own independent judgments. The existentialist gambit is to say that you can be a freethinker and still submit, and that your submission will not abrogate your status as a freethinker. And to this Adorno responds that if you retain a sense of yourself as a freethinker — if, following Jaspers, you never forget that you have chosen your commitments and could have chosen otherwise — then your commitment will always be provisional and indeed revocable and in that sense not really a commitment at all, certainly not an “absolute” one, one that you couldn’t imagine re-negotiating.

         Of course, we can run the contradiction the other way. The heteronomy that the young existentialist agrees to mimic will require that he relinquish his freedom, punctually, over and over again, even as he tells himself that he is doing so freely. Existentialism thus resembles nothing so much as the voluntary servitude first described by La Boétie in the 1540s — or the condition that made Spinoza shudder, the confusion of people “who fight for their bondage as though it were their freedom.” Equally, we could think of this existentialism as a bizarre reversal in the history of Left Hegelianism. In the 1840s, Bauer and Feuerbach and others began arguing that religion was the very model of alienation: Humans had invented God; assigned to him their own most distinctive powers (the powers of spirit, of creation, their ability to make and remake their world); and then subordinated themselves to this distorted avatar of their own disavowed eminence. Left Hegelianism was obviously an invitation to drop the God-act; to recognize that God was a projection of the power of thinking human activity and so to affirm that power directly. The existentialists then arrived on the scene and took these arguments on board, only to say: That! Do that! Kneel to the god of your own making, even as you freely concede that this is what you are doing. Existentialism thus enshrines the alienation that it was supposedly designed to combat. It is the resolve to stay alienated even once you have gained insight into the sources of your alienation.

           There’s another problem that follows on from this last and which Adorno has already insinuated at least twice: These early existentialists weren’t interested in any one religion, weren’t interested “in any specific doctrine.” So Jaspers says that we choose are commitments freely, and this will tend to imply that commitments are always plural — not that *I* will have multiple commitments, but that other plausible commitments were available and that I could have chosen differently and that I have to be prepared to let other people choose differently. Their choosing freely means they don’t have to choose as I do. This is Jaspers’s big innovation on Kierkegaard, who when all is said and done only had this one ardent version of Protestantism in mind. And though we might congratulate Jaspers for having figured out how to make Kierkegaardianism liberal, we might for that very reason fret that he has led us straight into the quagmire of multiple and contending Absolutes. We begin to sense the scope of the problem if we look again at Badiou, whose ethics is designed above all to undo liberal society’s general neutralization of commitment — its insistence that we not really believe what we claim to believe, or its grudging permission to believe anything we want provided we promise in advance never to do anything about it. Badiou, in other words, wants to teach members of a liberal society how to be fanatics again; he wants us to recover our lost capacity for militancy and Schwärmerei. The peculiar character of his argument, though, is that he is sticking up for fanaticism in general — for no particular fanaticism — and certainly not for communism specifically, which is what you might have thought he was after. And “fanaticism in general” is, of course, a broken-backed concept, a contradictory fusing of zeal and indifference: extreme and passionate dedication to a cause that doesn’t care anything about the cause. Badiou’s ethics thus incorporates the flaccidly noncommittal pluralism that it was designed to overcome, offering only a hollowed-out militancy remade on the model of its liberal enemy. Or to put the point more plainly: A genuinely religious person can’t care about religion in general, because he will be committed to the specific claims (rites, beliefs) of some particular religion. Particularity is built into the thing. Religion can only appear as “religion” to someone whose underlying premises are secular.

Zizek’s Stalling



•3. Žižek’s STALLING




We would do well to remind ourselves of how the Greimas square works, because knowing the square is going to make it easier to pick out what is least settled in Žižek’s thinking: his uncertainties, his panic. Before you click away to some corner of the Internet that doesn’t involve Lithuanian semiotics, let me observe that there is nothing metaphysical about the Greimas square. It’s just a device for beginning to say in which specific ways a given opposition is likely to turn unstable—which particular terms, in other words, an antithesis will generate but no longer be able fully to encompass. It provides a rough guide to the instability of any conceptual pair you find yourself needing to think about. Perhaps you’re trying to make sense of a story (or a philosophical system or the everyday idiom of a school or social scene), and you’ve noticed that it is fixated upon some opposition. If you now tabulate a Greimas square around the opposition’s two terms, you will have a much clearer idea of how X vs. Y can become unstuck, at which point you can turn back to the narrative (or whatever) and start scanning it for its pressure points. You will have a better chance of naming the passages (or episodes or characters or arguments) that most threaten the narrative’s governing antithesis. The Greimas square will flush out the material that the story has to work hardest to contain.

Here’s the easiest possible example. We compulsively code people and animals according to their genitalia, to the point where some people think that the doors of restaurant bathrooms are the very model and derivation of all two-term thinking. So the Greimas square begins with what first strikes the mind as a fixed opposition:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.02.17 AM

Next comes the bit that has the character of an instruction. For each term x, you think up some adjectives that describe the un-x and then record them in a short list beneath x’s opposite number, like so:

Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 11.28.46 AM


All of the action happens now, once you have these four corners in place, as you begin to sum each of the vectors in the square, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally: Man plus woman, man plus mannish, man plus effeminate, and so on. If we accelerate to the completed square, it will look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.04.54 AM

We’ll want to note at least three things about this and any other such quadrangle. 1) Its line of central terms, from “hermaphrodite” down through “tomboy,” all name intermediate or mongrel concepts: mules, tangelos, the usual stuff of the dialectic. The Greimas square is an especially efficient way of generating, from out of a system in seeming repose, its agitation—its misfits and unassimilated conceptual grit—though it will at the same time disclose the categories by which the system will move in to denominate its own anomalies. 2) When you sum each side of the square vertically (man + mannish, for instance), the adjectives that reside on the bottom tier will serve as intensifiers, producing purified or pumped-up versions of each of the antithesis’s central poles. Implicit in the Greimas square is thus the neglected insight that positive terms—terms that seem to exist outside of relationship—are as disruptive to a binary order as intermediate ones. 3) Aficionados of Greimas often call the hermaphrodite—the both-and construction that perches on the top of the completed square—the perfected or utopian term. It’s not clear whether we should call this synthesis queer (because its archetype is the androgyne) or un-queer (because its original is marriage). Either way, it is in this utopian term that the system’s initial opposition is overcome, its stalled conflicts and predictable oscillations set to one side, and the gratifying possibility of new historical and narrative material at last glimpsed. The x-plus-y term is usually thought of as the way out of a given semiotic square and into some other parallelogram or lozenge.

Knowing even this much about Greimas should allow us to say what makes Žižek’s project in many respects rather unusual. His thinking is manifestly organized around an opposition—the antithesis of law and transgression. That couplet will reappear in scores of his more local arguments. But what he calls upon us to repudiate, after those many arguments have crystallized out into their overriding political claim and program, is the merger of law and transgression in post-Oedipal capitalism’s culture of compulsory mischief, that historically novel system in which authority accrues to the rule-breaker rather than to the bailiff and in which it has become possible—check your own head—to feel guilty about doing what you’re told or to find the superego calling you to account for being insufficiently insubordinate. We can simplify that last sentence: Žižek repudiates the merger, and this is peculiar because it means that on the schedule of concepts generated squarewise by the antithesis law vs. transgression, it is the perfected term—the fusing of obedience and rebellion—that Left Lacanianism recommends we back away from. Žižek is widely regarded as a dialectical thinker, but it has to be said: He takes the synthesis to be the problem, and that isn’t how the dialectic typically works. Žižek means to identify an already existing fusion and then in some not entirely perspicuous sense resolve it back into its component parts, to throw the dialectic in reverse or desublate an established Aufhebung. Anyone running a Greimas square on The Plague of Fantasies or The Ticklish Subject is going to stop short upon finding the utopian term preemptively blocked, displaced by market society’s malign parody of reconciliation. We’ll still want to work up the square, though, because doing so will at least generate the other options, the terms that might be asked to serve as utopia now that synthesis has forfeited the role. Some other location on the square is going to have to provide the chute that leads out of its geometry, and we’ll want to know which it is.

So here is what Žižek’s square would look like if we left all its terms in the abstract:


Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 11.37.41 AM


At this point, our task is to work out what more specific terms Žižek has inserted into each of these conceptually dictated slots. We need, that is, to determine what kinds of historical substance can be attributed to the square’s otherwise intangible positions. We already know that the perfected term has been captured by the new spirit of capitalism and its “world of ordained transgression.” Change fast … match your brand’s look and feel … constantly innovating … 5 billion emails every month … monitor activity … celebrate creativity and chaos. And any disaffection we feel towards this term can effortlessly be extended to the two just below it, those other, equally inauspicious mediations: lawlike transgressions, the Lacanian name for which is hysteria, and transgressive knuckling to the law, known locally as perversion.

So with the central spindle removed from consideration, a Lacanian politics is going to have to travel the Greimas square’s outer perimeter. Three possibilities end up suggesting themselves:


Three o’clock

-Perhaps what we’re looking for is a politics that, in Žižek’s words, “suspends the dimension of the Law” or that affords us “jouissance outside the Law”—a transgressive transgression, then, a mode of waywardness that makes no reference back to the decrees of God or government and so can no longer be called “transgression” or “misconduct” nor even properly “lawlessness.” Žižek’s name for such devilry is “Christianity,” which is going to seem less confusing if we quickly note four things:

1) The philosopher from Catholic Europe doesn’t seem to realize it, but he isn’t talking about Christianity in general so much as about its hyper-Pauline strains—about radical Protestantism, in other words, and especially about the sects that came to the fore around the English Revolution: the Independents, the early Baptists, the Muggletonians. Something about Žižek’s confessional turn would have been more comprehensible if he had subtitled his books “Why the Quaker Legacy Is Worth Fighting For” and “The Perverse Core of Quakerdom.” If his persistent Jesus talk has struck many readers as confusing, this is at least in part because the Christians he is talking about are either dead or living in Pennsylvania college towns. Chances are you haven’t met them.

2) These Christians really did declare an end to the law. Here’s John Milton in Paradise Lost: “And to the cross he”—Jesus—“nails thy enemies: the law that is against thee and the sins of all mankind.” Knowing the historical case is your best chance at guessing the kind of politics that Žižek is trying to resuscitate when he says, in Miltonic accents, that Christ “signals the Law’s demise.” In the seventeenth century, some radical Protestants began selecting their own ministers from out of the nation’s pool of university graduates. They wouldn’t accept appointments from a superimposed hierarchy, but expected, rather, to exercise oversight over their own guardians. Others began raising ministers from out of their own plebian ranks—lay preachers, then, who kept their day jobs and were granted no special authority over their parishioners. In Bristol, England, there were mixed-raced Baptist congregations presided over by women as early as 1650. And then others still took the next consequent step and abolished the position of minister altogether, a feat that once perfected within the church could next be repeated extra-ecclesiastically. Milton held high office for its duration in the revolutionary government that beheaded the English king in 1649, which act is what the poet had in mind when he imagined the law being executed in Jesus’ stead, with Christ back on the ground and hammering, a centurion turned against the empire, the crucifix mutating before the reader into Judea’s guillotine.

3) This Christianity depends on a simple shift in grammatical mood. Where most churchgoers will tell you that Christians should love other people, the believers-beyond-the-law will say instead that Christians do love other people. If you are the sort of person who takes care of others without asking for their papers or checking first to see if they are worth your attention, then you are a Christian; and if not, then not. If, that is, you have to think about any of this, if you have to deliberate your way to that position, then you are only revealing your distance from God. There is thus an anti-ethical moment within Christianity itself, for which solidarity is not an obligation, but a kind of moral fact—the most important thing, in one sense, but also just something that people do. Keeping the law would, from this perspective, be a problem, since once you tell yourself that you should be more loving, you have made it clear that you would actually rather be some other way—you would prefer to be unreceptive or perfunctory or bilious—at which point agape can become just another target for your resentment, one more stricture that your authenticity requires you to defy.

4) In Book 8 of Paradise Lost, after the archangel Raphael has finished telling Adam the story of the Creation and the war in heaven and the ostracism of the rebel angels, he pauses to ask if the first man has any questions. And Adam has only a single question—just one thing he wants to ask: Do angels have sex? Raphael replies that they do, except that spirits have no flesh, such that they are constantly passing in and out of each other organisms, “obstacle finding none of membrane,” wafted into penetration by each puffing breeze. What Milton brings into view, then, is the possibility of a sex uncarcassed, whole-bodied and resolutely non-genital, still the literary canon’s most compelling image of polymorphous desire, a libido without need of fruitfulness or groin-anchoring. We will read elsewhere in the poem that the angels are “without feminine”—they are all “masculine”—and this will only confirm the point: that the radical Protestant heaven is a place of unrestrained sex between men, or if not men than males, gay sex, you might want to say, except that this sex accords no priority to “joint or limb”—some other gay sex, therefore, the hypothetically unphallic version, gay male sex refashioned on the example of its lesbian feminist antithesis. This is Christianity’s own vision of liberated enjoyment or good obscenity—of pleasure beyond the law—all of it palpable still, if you seek out the right Sunday service, in the quaking and the shaking and the shout music. The overall point is simple: Žižek sometimes seems to think that Jesus is how you become a Lacanian without going into therapy, and he thinks this because there really have existed Christians who believed that the law had been abolished and that moral life was a matter of enjoyment rather than obligation.


Six o’clock

-But then you might decide that pursuing an ethical enjoyment doesn’t make any sense. Let’s first put the best face on that position: The doctrine of good obscenity holds that political goods are not sustainable if they are rooted in repression. If, for instance, my fellows and I achieve our solidarity only by discretion and euphemism, then our camaraderie can at any point be blown apart by an eruption of the Real. The alternative would be to absorb trauma and the drive into our position and so to seek gonzo versions of what we’ll have to stop calling values: not freedom, but nasty freedom; not equality, but nasty equality; not justice, but nasty justice. Liberté, égalité, obscénité. But this proposal is hard to carry through consequently. Part of the problem is as it were philological. Another of Lacanianism’s core arguments is that the father is always a sham. That’s the starting point, in fact, from which psychoanalysis leads most directly to an emancipatory politics; it thinks it can show you that paternal authority doesn’t really exist. You probably formed your conception of authority at age two or three, attributing to your father powers that he plainly did not possess. To a toddler, the father is, ludicrously, the Person Who Can Do Anything He Wants—the one who can run faster than you and jump higher and always reach the ice cream, the one who can pull your nose from your face and reattach it at will, the one who can send you to your room and somehow make you stay there. Žižek’s claim is that your relationship to authority has never stopped being childish in this fashion, that even once you grew taller than your dad and began to outrun him and realized that the nose in the old man’s fist was just his own poorly disguised thumb, you transferred your belief in his omnipotence to the father’s sundry proxies: cops, bosses, priests, &c. What remains as one of childhood’s more damaging legacies is your conviction that there exists somewhere someone who gets to do all the things that you are prevented from doing, someone who possesses the jam that you lack. The grown-up alternative to this view would be, rather than struggling against such people, to stop believing in them, to stop conferring on them a supremacy that they would not have absent your belief. So authority in some sense doesn’t exist but is merely an attribution; all pretended powers are to that extent spurious; and the word “obscene,” in Žižek’s writing, usually refers to the way in which your desire is entwined with such fantasized and illegitimate hierarchy. But when Žižek writes, as he often does, that what we require is, say, an “obscene solidarity,” he can’t mean the word in that sense. He can’t mean a solidarity supercharged by some delusion we hold about our fathers, since the paternal presence, even if a phantom, would so obviously compromise the solidarity it is being asked to underwrite. Worse: We require an obscene politics on simple Enlightenment grounds, so that our practices will not depend on repression and its fragile lies, but then obscenity threatens to reintroduce into those practices distortion and misapprehension at another level. We watch Pentecostals chicken-walk down a church aisle, and we can just about imagine an obscene justice, except that obscenity in the sense that Žižek usually means it would transplant injustice back into the realm of the fair and the due. How, we will need to know, could obscenity serve justice and still be experienced as obscene? Wouldn’t obscenity by definition bring with it excess, inhumanity, compulsion, &c?

Nor is the problem merely lexical. That Žižek continues to use the word “obscene” in these contexts should rankle; it is a persistent if accidental reminder that transgression carries law with it and that devising genuinely liberated versions of the Left’s core positions is going to take more than an act of will. So the next part of the problem is epistemological: Let’s suppose I’m white and I’m close to some guys who aren’t, and I say that, no, really, I can joke with them about how enormous their penises are, because I am thereby acknowledging the history of racist cliché, the sexual panic that was woven into every looped rope, &c. This will be the crucible of our confrerie; my tastelessness will retrieve entire registers of historical experience that tact would just as soon place beyond discussion. And yet it is reasonable to ask: How will my buddies know what construction to put on my jokes? Psychoanalysis hardly suggests that we are transparent to one another, so I shouldn’t, if I’m following Žižek, be able to take my intelligibility as given. How, in other words, would anyone who is not himself a trained Lacanian analyst be able to tell that my joke isn’t a way of pulling racial rank on them? And wouldn’t even my analyst require long acquaintance with me in order to make that determination? So why would any comrade of mine put up with those big-black-dick jokes for the time it took to figure this out? Or maybe I think that my crew should be able to know my mind immediately and on the spot. Maybe there are simple verbal indices that will tell a person what is liberated enjoyment and what is mere hysteria. But then what would those be? Psychoanalysis doesn’t give us any reason to hope that this would be the case, and Žižek never instructs us on how to make the call, and besides, if there were such rhetorical cues—features of syntax or word-choice or inflection—then these would be mimickable by any racist and they would thereby stop functioning as cues. So let’s agree that my friends can’t tell my mind. But then I have to wonder, too, whether I can really know that my wisecracks are emancipated and anti-racist rather than obscene. Can I be sure that I understand my speech any better than others do? When did Freudians start believing that people are in control of their own utterances? At this point the epistemological problem reveals itself to have been a properly analytic one all along. For even if I speak my jokes in the spirit of uninhibited fellowship, can I be sure that I’m not also deriving pleasure, repetitively and compulsively, from them? It is a rare joke that tells itself only once.

One way to terminate this train of misgiving would be to give up on the idea of a good obscenity or enjoyment outside the law. Perhaps rather than trying to wrest pleasure free from regulation, we could cancel the law and enjoyment in one, swinging from the Greimas square’s scatty right flank down to its neutered fundament. The neither-nor would replace the both-and as the dialectic’s utopian term, producing not a synthesis but merely an uncharged field, atheticized and disannulled—an antinomianism still, but one that gains the unlawed person no treats or hedonic bonuses, an antinomianism chaste and meager. Perhaps, Žižek writes, we should worry less about “suspending the explicit laws” and worry more about suspending “their implicit spectral obscene supplement.” A good politics wouldn’t produce a different obscenity; it would “simply have none.” The complication that emerges at this point is that Žižek’s name for this position, as rival to an ecstatic Christianity, is also Christianity, which is thereby made to occupy two competing slots on the Greimas square. Maybe Christianity is the religion of love-not-law, featuring a god who pals around with whores and compulsively turns all nonalcoholic liquids into wine. But then maybe radical Protestantism’s love-beyond-the-law will itself no longer feel much like love. The Quakers, after all, haven’t quaked for centuries. They sit in silence in spare rooms and address each other as “friends”—Lenten intimates and un-obscene compeers, forming a horizon of flat amity from which no-one rises to the level of lover.


Nine o’clock

-But then if the idea is now to cancel the obscene supplement, it is enough to consult the Greimas square to know that one further option remains conceptually available. This would be the square’s left extremity: the law that is fully law, law in its positivity, with no furtive link back to disobedience—a position that, though thinkable, is psychoanalytically disallowed, which makes it all the more surprising that Žižek has been willing both to entertain the option as a political goal and to propose a candidate as historical bearer of the project. Here’s the project: “The problem (today, even) is not how we are to supplement Law with true love (the authentic social link), but, on the contrary, how we are to accomplish the Law by getting rid of the pathological stain of love.” “Kant sans Sade,” he sometimes calls this idea, a figure we normally know as “Kant.” And here’s the bearer: “Jews assert the Law without superego.” The origins of Judaism lay in a “liberation from the obscene superego.” Israelite hyper-legalism—the stance of a cartoon Judaism that sticks myopically to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit—brings into view the law in its pure form, without “the repressed desire to sin.” And with that we have the answer to the acrostic’s last unsolved clue. Once we speak the word “Judaism,” we can re-do Žižek’s square with all its proper names and historical specifications:

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This schema allows us to see, among other things, that Žižek’s turn to political theology hasn’t, in fact, been all that pious. He has been interested in Christianity and Judaism only because their various sects really have had rather different things to say about a person’s proper relationship to the law and so can, at the price of a certain brusqueness, be asked to stand in for the combinatory’s several positions. But anyone put off by his readings in the history of religion can at any point return to the square in its conceptual purity and ahistorical abstraction; there’s no reason you can’t put forward your own secular version of the square, provided you are willing to propose alternate, irreligious candidates to take the place of Žižek’s godly ones. One word of caution: The most difficult moment in that undertaking is always going to involve the slot that Žižek calls “Jewish,” which has to be occupied by a magical people without drive or libido, utopian Pharisees and virtuosi of repression, the ones who can ignore their desires and never pay the price.

An opportunity now arises: With the completed square in front of us, we can say at last where Žižek’s thinking is most stuck. The square’s simplicity strips away the endless ingenuity of Žižek’s page-long riffs and discloses instead the unsteadiness of his Lacanian structure—the problems it cannot solve and questions it cannot answer. What almost no-one has noticed, for one, is that Žižek has been distancing himself from Christianity over the past decade and shifting over instead to the positions that he calls Jewish. Granted: They’re probably only Jewish within his Lutheran and sock-puppety scheme. The way he uses “Judaism” as a shorthand for various law-loving positions might, indeed, irritate you, but before your annoyance propels you to stop reading, you might want to at least register that this Judaism, if a scarecrow, is a scarecrow that Žižek has begun to identify with. Here, reduced to their tags, are some of the positions he has been arguing of late: that we have to “assert the priority of the Jewish principle of just revenge/punishment”; that we must mount a defense of “rigorous Jewish justice”; that we must retrieve “the most precious and revolutionary aspect of the Jewish legacy”; that we must forgo the banalities of human rights talk for the non-negotiable severities of the Decalogue; and, again and again, that “we are all potentially homo sacer,” which, traced back to its source in Agamben, means “We are all potentially victims of the camps” and is thus an erudite, Romanizing update of an old radical street chant: “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands.” You might remember reading in the Book of Acts that the early Christians were communists—“all things were common property to them”; “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own”—and guessed on those grounds that Žižek’s drift to Leninist militancy was the simple extension of the month he spent reading Paul in the late ‘90s. Rhetorically, though, Žižek’s neo-Bolshevism is better understood as a break with his Protestantism, which turns out to have been cranky and fleeting, like those three Dylan albums that no-one ever listens to, though Zizek has never really announced his conversion, and it will take some cross-referencing to establish the point: In one book we read that ancient Judaism was “revolutionary” because it was willing to treat the law as a “pronouncement,” “something externally and violently imposed.” In another we read that the Left must “assume the task of a new ‘ordering’ against the global capitalist disorder”; capitalism is a non-regime of “permanent self-revolutionizing” and pointless innovation, against which we must “shamelessly enforce” a new law. Our communism will, in this sense, come from Sinai and not Galilee. Under the sign of Moses, revolution and counter-revolution become impossible to tell apart.

This particular argument of Žižek’s might, at first, seem a little startling, if only because it has rarely been appreciated how much of his corpus amounts to an ongoing Réflexion sur la question juive. But what is truly confounding is not this or that particular proposal of Žižek’s—not this or any other recommendation as to how we might best tackle the problem of enjoyment—but the sheer number of such recommendations. Žižek has lots of ideas about how we might get enjoyment right, and the effect of this fertile, brainstorming array of possibilities is to rob each individual suggestion of its plausibility and so to make the problem seem insoluble after all. False motion is the sign of the system’s stalling, its unremitting reasking of a question the possible answers to which never seem to stick. Žižek is hardly immune from the kettle logic he is quick to spot in others: —I didn’t break your law. –The law was broken when you gave it to me. –Law? What law? God doesn’t make laws. Pauline Christianity is likely to believe that Jesus “paid the price” or “fulfilled the law,” that he enabled God to show us mercy by suffering in our place, &c. It is in this sense entirely nomian and law-loving, suggesting as it does that it was beyond God’s power simply to repeal the law or to declare it void. Even a radical Protestantism thus preserves something of the law’s structure secreted inside itself, on the theory that Christ’s death keeps in permanent balance the scales of divine justice. Against this a more thorough-going antinomianism can argue that Jesus’ death was so brutal that there is nothing you and your piety can do to make it right again. You cannot say: Oh, I get itthis man was tortured and hung up to die, and I therefore promise not to have sex until I get married. That idea is, in fact, a little nutty, as though your prolonged virginity were in some sense equivalent to torture, as though the one could compensate for another. The best thing about Christianity is that it has at its center an act that was entirely cruel, because cruelty breaks the logic of the quid pro quo, which is the logic of the law or the contract or the bargain. But this notion of grace—which is the doctrine of the law’s gratuitousness and self-indicting excess—imposes the burden of endless thanksgiving, the acknowledgment day after day of an unpaid debt, which is to say a peonage: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that—Alas, my God, I know not what.” Calvinism, meanwhile, manages to suspend the law only by positing a sovereign god, a lord and father, whose authority cannot be checked even by his own commands; there is no law, it’s true, but only because God doesn’t have to honor any of the agreements you think you’ve made with Him. A Christian antinomianism, judged within a Lacanian frame, keeps cycling back to law and superego and Big Daddy. Žižek’s point all along has been that the concept of law doesn’t exhaust how the social order keeps a hold on us—that there is always something beyond law—and that this other thing, Enjoyment, necessarily approaches us as non-juridical beings, hence in the mode of bare life. Antinomianism might be the path to emancipation, but it is also the condition of both the sovereign and the homo sacer, those persons outside the law. So Žižek has gotten more hostile to Enjoyment over time. His asceticism has taken over. He has come to think of Judaism as a spiritual practice that can teach us how to follow the law without getting sucked into the obscene supplement. And he thinks the same thing about Kant—that Kant teaches us how to work upon ourselves, in a Lacanian spirit, so that we can identify moral law without Enjoyment getting in the way. And he thinks that Leninism was a Judeo-Kantian politics, before Stalinism took over and brought obscene enjoyment back into Communism. But there is still a very big problem. When he is attacking the theory of radical democracy put forth by some rival Lacanians, Žižek says that these others just don’t get it—that the negativity at the heart of democracy generates its own obscene supplement. Democracy prides itself on being ideologically thin, which means conceptually and libidinally thin, minimally mystified. A proper democracy will be entirely procedural or formal; it won’t tell anybody what to think or feel or want. But this means that democracy cedes enjoyment, the libido, &c to the Right, to which it is then attached in a historically determinate structure: an erotically thin democracy will always go hand in hand with erotically charged challenges from the Right. You can say in advance that they have to go together; you can’t have the first without the second. That’s what he means when he says that the last generation’s new nationalisms and new fundamentalisms have been part and parcel of democracy and the center-Left: Obscene enjoyment “is the obverse, the fantasmatic supplement, of democracy itself.”  It is on this point that Zizek is, in fact, closest to Wilhelm Reich. But then one has to wonder: How is his notion of a Judaic communism of the Law exempt from this same critique? What happens to Enjoyment under Judaism or Kantianism or Leninism? We’re really back to basics. Psychoanalysis tells us that the libido never just goes away; you can’t tell it to leave and you can’t tell it to heel. So why would Jews and Communists be exempt from this? Why would they and they alone have beaten Donkey Kong? If consumer capitalism is the Regime of Obscene Enjoyment that a justice-loving Communism is offering to repress, then won’t capitalism just take on the status of the Real or the drive, especially for the many of us who will possess pre-revolutionary memories of such a thing—won’t a successfully suppressed capitalism just become the market unconscious, the consumer underground, the shop-till-you-drop-and-all-you-can-eat-and-our-doors-never-close? So here are my two questions for Žižek, which I’m hoping someone will put to him the next time he is near a mike: First, are we meant to pursue a politics beyond obscenity or is the idea to make obscenity itself do the work of justice, and if the latter, in what sense would this obscenity still be obscene? Second, and perhaps more pressingly: How do Jews get their kicks? I know, I know: That question lies at the center of Žižek’s entire conked-out system, and it still sounds like a joke.

(My thanks to Jason Josephson, Anita Sokolsky, Ali Mctar, and my fellow readers of Zizek in ENGL 456.)