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August 09, 2005


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I have to say that this is a very succinct statement of the difference between Derrida and Zizek. It would seem on the face of it that the choice is irreconcilable: giving up all notion of the Big Other/God and accepting our fate as being in the world among others, but without hope of redemption (at least in the traditional sense). Where as the Levinasian/Deconstructive move is to give testimony, declare one's solidarity with the victims, and respect the memory of a promise for redemption. I realize I am being a bit dramatic (which I hear is "so over") but this seems to be the gist of what Z is saying, at least in my limited understanding of his thought.

As I recall, somewhere at the end of The Puppet and the Dwarf, he goes on to quote Christ's refrain "Why hast thou forsaken me?" He seems to take this as an indication of Christianity's atheism(seriously, please correct me if I am wrong). So at least in this respect, Derrida/Levinas would not only be more Jewish, but in fact, more traditionally Christian by contrast. Their notion of "radical alterity," and "respect for otherness" would fall along the lines of conventional religious teaching, while Zizek is calling for the self-overcoming of Christianity (Aufhebung) into some new materialist praxis. If I am close to his intention, it sounds exciting, but it brings up a host of more questions.

Charles R

I take Žižek to be saying things much along the lines of what you wrote, Alain. Ž appears to me to take Hegel's transformation of Christianity into an ultimately atheist community (I'm thinking of what happens in the Phenomenology) and cast it within psychoanalytic language, drawing heavy emphasis not on the "death of God" but on the very question of Christ on the Cross. Rather than take the traditional Christian account and say that Christ is alluding to Psalm 22, Ž has Christ finish the Psalm at its opening point of doubt, hesistancy, and declaration of the uselessness of God as that person-thing which will save us all in the end.

In my readings of Ž, I take him to be suggesting that this perverse kernel of Christianity *is* redemption, because what happens in Christianity as a result of the (unconscious) upholding of Christ's doubt is the rejection of masters and the rule of others by the defeat of the symbolic power of the Master. A lot of what Ž writes on political action, about the Act, and so on, appears to me to follow along the lines of this thought, or rather Žižek came to Christianity (or Badiou's use of Paul) and saw in it what he was already working on, where truly political acts are those which do not depend upon the safety and assurance of the current order—they are risky and must be so. In this way, we're to be on the lookout for ways of struggling against the current order by settling into those points where the order doesn't just break down, but where the regularity of order's power is placed into doubt or suspended. A criminal act of terrorism, for example, blows a hole in the material structures of the ruling order, but the ideological regime just takes this into its structure and uses it for its own strength; however, if the inconsistencies between the ideology's own declaration and its obscene supplement work into direct contradiction, that altogether different hole serves as the space from which revolutionary activity worms out and stands.

In that respect, the meaning of Christ's question is that the retroactive movement in recognizing in Christ on the Cross God himself places this moment of doubt into God himself: perhaps for Jesus as a man we do take him to be alluding to Psalm 22, because we, not his immediate disciples, take him to be another Jewish martyr resulting from the collusion of Jewish and Roman masters, but when we see the Christ as a result of the resurrection, everything that has happened remains the same, but our recognition of it changes. We cognize about it differently ("Behold, everything is new!" is Žižek's paraphrase of Paul in 2 Cor. 5), we are always "renewing our minds" (Rom 12). If the goal of the Christian is to be Christlike, then, for Žižek, the Christian at her most delicate and fragile moment, the point where she is most terrified and scared, is precisely *not* the moment to call out to God to save her, but rather to become like Christ and challenge God, not to explain himself, but to fess up that he's betrayed us and failed (hence, why we get from betrayal as love in Fragile Absolute to loving a failure in Puppet and the Dwarf). Just as God failed Job when it mattered most and hid behind great and amazing power (this take on Job Žižek lays out in his work several times, I believe), so is God shown to be a failure for his own son, and as we become co-heirs with Christ, he is also a failure to us as well. Here's some Ž:

"In addition to all this [the difficulty of reading poetry as connected to the biographical life of its authors], it is not simply that one failure overlaps with another: it is through this very failure to show 'its true reference in reality' directly that a poem sublates its 'pathological' idiosyncrasy, and generates its properly *universal* artistic impact. This shift, this sudden recognition of how the very obstacle preventing us from reaching the Thing Itself enables us to identify directly with it (with the deadlock at its heart), defines the properly *Christian* form of identification: it is ultimately *identification with a failure*—and, consequently, since the object of identification is God, God Himself must be shown to fail." [p. 89, Puppet]

We later come to the point where Žižek suggests or hints at a political programme:

"The structural homology between the old Jewish or Pauline messianic time and the logic of the revolutionary process is crucial here: 'The future is no future without this anticipation and the inner compulsion for it, without this "wish to bring about the Messiah before his time" and the temptation to "coerce the kingdom of God into being"; without these, it is only a past distended endlessly and projected forwarded.' [quoting Rosenzweig] Do not these words fit perfectly Rosa Luxembourg's description of the necessary illusion which pertains to a revolutionary act? As she emphasizes against the revisionists, if we wait for the "right moment" to start a revolution, this moment will never come—we have to take the risk, and precipitate ourselves into revolutionary attempt, since it is only through a series of "premature" attempts (and their failure) that the (subjective) conditions for the "right" moment are created." [133, Puppet]

I take him to be arguing that what is great in Christianity, beyond the willingness to declare something that upsets people and make controversial claims with a smile, is its "fighting humility" (to switch up something he says frequently), where the firm believer persistently keeps on believing not *in spite of* the evidence, but without any regard for what makes the evidence *evidential*. And, since the believer works that way, undoubtedly the believer will fail time and again—the experience of the Christian in trying to be Christlike keeps on hitting the same place Christ himself did on the Cross. Two ways, it seems, to go: give in to the doubt and renounce the faith; get over it and try again, only better this time. The first way I'm not sure Žižek ever spends much time on, but I do see a lot of his writings dealing with the temptation to go the second way, where the cycle of the Law compels us to fail ever more, sin ever more, to show the strength of the Law and the sinfulness of us. So, he suggests to us this perverse core of Christianity, a third way: identify the points of our failures as the moments when we are *most* Christlike, and from that subjective awareness we might, *might* become open to truly being as Christ. This is where we are humble: we're not ignoring our failures nor are we identifying with *them*, as if our failure is what we are. We are, instead, working through the failures to have them situate us into the position of being Christlike so that we identify, through them, with Christ. Which is why we fight: we keep on working out our salvation because every time we reach a point where we show our weakness, it is no longer something that hinders us as obstacle to God, but it places us with God.

The materialist shift comes in when we recognize that, as our failures are no longer obstacles to God, so, too, are they no longer reasons to rely upon God to save us from them. They are, rather, places and times for us to act of our own miserable will, and in our impotency we are fully able to decide ourselves what we choose to do, without that reliance upon something to guarantee what we choose is going to happen in the way we want it. And, if just so happens to all go awry, we have merely continued the possibilities of action without any closure.

This is how I read Žižek, but as a committed, evangelical believer, it is perhaps a different reading than one someone else may have.


Alain, I think Charles R. has an astute and interesting reading here. Here's how I see it, and from what I can tell, I'm in substantial agreement with Charles.

It seems to me that the fidelity to an event Zizek urges is one that remains faithful even as it acknowledges that it is likely that this faith will lead to the worst, that nothing is predictable or guaranteed, that what constitutes hope is precisely this lack of certainty or even probability. So, it seems to me that there is a key difference in what might be thought of as the messianic element (as you suggest re Levinas and Derrida): for Zizek, there is no promise of redemption. We have to accept that there is no messiah or justice to come. And, with this acceptance, we take full responsibility for our acts, not putting responsibility onto God or history or anyone else.

What also interests me here is whether the 'we' I am using is or can be collective. That is, does Zizek think that this can be the attitude of a Party and if so are there attributes of this Party that are more than terroristic.

But anyway, against those who read Z as messianic, I see him as having the event or act or intervention without the actual messiah and the challenge is how we can be vehicles of this event. And the answer seems to be: only if we are willing to fail.


For what it's worth, I think the figure of the messiah in Derrida owes considerable amount to Blanchot, in which a certain kind of failure figures prominently, and not at all as a reification or displacement of responsibility (onto capital-lettered "God", "History"---although Levinas himself may have been fond of capitalizing the word "Other"...)

Zizek, on the other hand, seems to me at least sometimes careless in his ultra-serious, take no prisoners approach, almost to the point where one must begin to seriously question his priorities, the ways his own ego is bound up in his identifications with a certain politics, willfully naive to its own rhetoric, etc. if you catch my drift. I wouldn't say he goes so far as to misconstrue or forget the real and serious stakes of his intervention, only that he's persistently unfair to Derrida, and it often seems like he enjoys this just a little.



I think you are right about Zizek being careless in his rhetoric concerning Derrida. And of course the messianic does not stand in for God in any traditional sense. I am open to the possibility that I am totally wrong about this, but it seems to me that in the notion of the promise, and a relation to the impossible, there is a quasi- theological dependence on the other, whether big O or little o I am not sure. In this relationship it seems to offer a hope, not that God is going to save us, but that the relation to the other offers a kind of redemption. In the end, this may not be all that different than what Zizek talks about; after all, there is no messiah for Derrida, only the messianic relation. Nevertheless, in his discussion of Justice(as distinct from Law) it seems Justice itself is a quasi-regulative idea that always should guide our specific political interventions. To the degree that Zizek seems to preclude this sort of structure, he seems to be saying something different. But I have to admit this stuff is still pretty new to me, and my brain does not work as well as it use to.:)

And thanks Jodi and Charles R for your responses. Charles, I appreciate what you are saying, that Zizek transforms our understanding of redemption and our selves, and our relation to God. I need to think about this and reread The Puppet and the Dwarf.


Alain, I don't think Z would agree that a relation to the other can offer any redemption. The best one can hope for is not giving way on desire, and breaking through bad structures, practices, symptoms by traversing the fantasy, that is, by taking the position of the point of exclusion. Politically, this means identifying the point of exclusion in a formation, its fundamental antagonism. And, doing so in both instances involves subjective destitution, eliminating that which is most precious.

As I see it, Z pushes a politics that allows for no security, protection, or reassurance.

And, then, we have Matt's point: is this serious? is this a pose? and, even if Z is serious, is this something others should take seriously? might not following through with this sort of thing be completely deadly and, ultimately, unethical? I won't rehearse Z's responses to these at this point.

On Derrida: is your complaint with the way that Z reads D completely in terms of Levinas? Or, do you have a problem with his discussions of Derrida on Hegel? All or none of the above? Regarding the latter, Z's move seems to be to say that Derrida's own rejection of Hegel is basically a misreading insofar as Hegel is taking the position D would prefer him to take (and not then guilty of not doing this). And, then Z agrees with this Hegel, so he would agree with Derrida. (This sounds so stupid...sorry....)


If I can agree with but in no way speak for Matt, I think the problem with Z is exactly his ego-driven need to read everyone and everything as evidence of his particular Lacanian/Hegelian synthesis, wherein D becomes proof of H (to name but one example). What is needed to push this sort of reading is a continued and repeated caricature of the allegedly "postmodern" conjoined to a reaffirmation of models (the symptom-fetish dynamic is a good example) that don't do much besides affirm their own presuppositions. The surprising dearth of textual citations in Puppet seems evidence of this, since sustained engagement with the writing of either D or L would require a more complicated take than the one Z wants to offer.

Contrast Z's gloss here with others who have offered more serious readings - Critchley's Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity or Caputo's Prayers and Tears. Most of Puppet seems phoned-in to me. There are certainly some problems with the Levinasian dynamic (Jeff Nealon does a nice job offering a more Deleuzian take on it in Alterity Politics), especially when it comes to confronting mediation, but that is also the scene in which Derrida departs from Levinas, another reason why lumping the two together without a good deal of nuanced reading is problematic. Media is hardly ever an issue for Zizek, and when it is a concern, it is mostly for strategic purposes as an exemplar, and not because he wants to consider the structure of mediation and its role in subjective or ideological formation. This isn't to say he's beneficial to a certain sense of Christiandom, but it does, I think create a number of ego-driven problems in his assessment of the D-L arch of responsibility.

[As an aside, I think there's a small tension in puppet with his favorable take on Agamben's Remnants in Defense of the Real, since Agamben predicates much of his discussion of subjectivity on Levinas' exploration of shame, which is the forebear to Levinas' polemic for responsibility.]


I haven't read Agamben's Remnants, so I can't speak to that--but thanks for the reminder re the book.

I guess I see these questions a bit differently. I don't want to fixate on 'ego-driven,' although it does stand out to me as a key part of your point. Why is ego-driven the problem? Or, why is it a sense that Z has this massive ego something that bothers folks who read him? I can understand distaste for his symptom-fetish machine, but what does ego-driven add?

I think I would say that Z's project is one of setting out his view, his stuff, and not providing commentary on others. So, he has is Hegelian-Lacanian project, and everything becomes food for it. Would a more detailed reading change Z's view? Likely not--but, it could change the view of Z fans. And, so then it seems to me that those who think Z misreads Derrida or Kierkegaard or whomever who need to show the impact of another reading on Z's theory. Or, they ignore Z and his misreadings. (It makes sense that Critchley would have a more nuanced view--that's his stuff, his area, he's a Levinasian ... )



As always, your insights are great. I do not have a lot of time at the moment so I must be brief. Derrida's position does not promote security, nor deny the necessity of taking chances. I think there is a sense in which the reading of Hegel is the key in understanding the distinction between derrida and zizek. Among other things, what is at stake in this reading is the very notion of a politics, of community, and the possibility of a radical praxis (the act in Zizek's sense). Your point about Zizek's Hegel being more like what Derrida wants Hegel to be, that seems to be the key. Is Zizek's appropriation of Hegel(with Lacan mixed in for good measure)able to do the job he needs it to do? For example, Zizek always uses Antigone as his example of a radical political gesture. Derrida's reading does not deny her political importance but he problematizes her relation to both the family (traditional archaic values)and the political (Creon, emblem of rationality of the State). The sister becomes both the condition of the continuity of the family, and its impossibility. Can Antigone really be a paradigm for a politics? I do not know the answer, and I may totally miss what Zizek is saying about Antigone, so please be kind.

Again, all apologies for the brevity of the response. This is a topic that I think could be really interesting.


Clarification: I should have said this topic IS very interesting.


Alain, actually, I haven't focused enough on Z's reading of Antigone to say very much intelligent on the matter without looking it up. Here's my rough recollection: in Fragile Absolute he turns away from Antigone to Medea for an example of the act. And, when he talks about Antigone, what interests him is the combination of ethical and political in one moment so that the truly political act reframes the entire situation, changing the coordinates we use to make an ethical assessment. (He also talks about Polyneices' body as the ultimate Macguffin, but that, I think, is just playing around, a cute joke; he suggests Hitchcockian title: The trouble with Polyneices).

At any rate, I wouldn't say that her example is a paradigm for politics. I'd say its an example of an ethical and political act wherein one is willing to risk subjective destitution. This risk is one that one takes as a kind deliberate worst choice.



I think he talks about Antigone at some length in his Totalitarianism book, specifically when he is discussing Derrida/Critchley's distinction between ethics and politics. He uses Antigone as a counter example in order to show why the ethics/politics distinction breaks down with Antigone. The details are a bit fuzzy now, but it seemed to be an important part of his analysis. I will try to find the specific passages and let you know.


I'll look at it when I get home this afternoon. Thanks for the cite.

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