Slavoj Zizek: living in the desert of the real (part 2)

My former professor of political science at Wheaton College, Ashley Woodiwiss, published an excellent essay on the political-religious thought of Slavoj Zizek in Books & Culture late last year. The title of the essay: “Philosophy at the End of the World: The Gospel According to Slavoj Zizek.” Woodiwiss does a fine job of capturing the sheer idiosyncratic brilliance of Zizek by engaging with some of his more pressing publications—i.e., those which address current issues central to our social existence in a world post-9/11.

Woodiwiss quotes Zizek from his pop-philosophy book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, on politics after Sept. 11:
[T]he USA, which until now perceived itself as an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will the Americans decide to fortify their "sphere" further, or risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in—even strengthen the deeply immoral attitude of "Why should this happen to us. Things like this don't happen here!" … Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival in the Real world, making the long overdue move from "A thing like this shouldn't happen here!" to "A thing like this shouldn't happen anywhere!"
Part of the problem, however, is that the U.S. throughout its history has indeed adopted (a version of) the idea: “A thing like this shouldn't happen anywhere!” There is a sense in which anti-Communist America during the Cold War had this kind of pseudo-altruistic spirit. On a certain level, the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war appears similar to this, but Woodiwiss notes, in light of Zizek’s philosophy:
Caught in the grip of this ideology of excess, the U.S. regime has erected a Fortress America model, justifying unilateralism abroad, surveillance at home. What are such moves seemingly (pre-)determining? With the next big terrorist act always imminent, always already en route but never from a known origin, what arises inevitably is the permanent emergency state.
I don’t have time here to expound much upon Zizek’s political thought, especially since Woodiwiss has already done a fine job of this. I will simply conclude by noting a couple phrases in Zizek’s philosophy which I think hold much potential for theological reflection. The following are two statements quoted by Woodiwiss:
An act does not occur within the given horizon of what appears to be 'possible'—it redefines the very contours of what is possible.

The 'utopian' gesture is the gesture which changes the co-ordinates of the possible.
Based on these two statements, we might speak of a “utopian act”—an act which interrupts the framework of present possibilities and reorders reality towards “the construction of a u-topic space, a social space outside the existing parameters, the parameters of what appears to be 'possible' in the existing social universe.” It seems that there are a lot of fruitful connections to theology, particularly the work of Eberhard Jüngel, who views justification by faith as a divine act which also “redefines the very contours of what is possible”; in fact, justification is not only an act of redefinition, but it is in fact an act of reconstitution. Justification is a divine event in which being is remade ex nihilo, in which the contours of actuality are destroyed on the cross and the new horizon of divine possibilities is established instead.

Thus, in his essay, “The World as Possibility and Actuality” (Theological Essays I, 95-123), Jüngel writes:
The absolutizing of actuality and the distinction between the actual and the non-actual as the measure of the world is subject to fundamental critique from the event of justification, a critique which understands the world . . . out of the resurrection of the dead—as creation out of nothing. Theology must establish that the radical nothingness of Good Friday is the other dimension of the being of this world. This is not in order that we may indulge in some profound ontology of nothingness, but rather that we may think of God as the creator and of his creation as justified. Theology does this by establishing the distinction between the possible and the impossible as incomparably more fundamental than the distinction between the actual and the not-yet-actual. Where the distinction between the possible and the impossible is made, we are concerned with truth (as opposed to actuality). The distinction between the possible and the impossible is incomparably more fundamental because it concerns the distinction between God and the world. And in the distinction between God and the world we are not concerned primarily with actuality, but with truth. (110-11)

God is to be thought of out of the event of justification as the one who in the very act of distinguishing himself from the world relates himself to it. In this way he is, and remains, God He has shown himself to exist in this way in the indissoluble unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of this, there is no true proclamation of the cross which does not take place in the power of the resurrection, and even less is there true proclamation of the risen one which does not proclaim him to be the crucified. The Easter message, the gospel, is the word of the cross. Out of this word, we have to say that God himself is the one who makes the possible to be possible and the impossible to be impossible, and in this distinction between possibility and impossibility lets the world be actual. Beyond the distinction between possibility and impossibility, God himself is equiprimordially both, or, to say the same thing, God is and his being is in becoming. (112)


Shane said…
Before you get too excited about Zizek, you should read The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity.s

Here's an excerpt from an email I wrote to Prof. Woodiwiss back in November when the article came out:

"Warm Wishes Comrade!

... I was also glad to
read your recent piece on Zizek in B&C. I'm not too pleased about
this recent fad passing through academe: atheist post-modern philosophers colonizing religion to further their own agendas. I half expect Stanley Fish to write a theology soon and start calling
himself a 'Fundamentalist' in some ironic, glib way. I hope the
cover of this book will be a picture of a picture of a sign with a single question mark pointing off into murky blackness. . ."
Shane said…
I would really like to see a book with a cover like the one i describe in that email actually.
D.W. Congdon said…
While I haven't read it, from what I know, The Puppet and the Dwarf is not really as anti-Christian as you perhaps think it is. That said, I have no problem appropriating the ramblings of an atheist (though a rather "Christian" atheist!) for theological ends.

Moreover, as anyone familiar with Zizek should know, no single book can possibly be representative of Zizek's own thought. He is so scatter-brained that he almost begs people like myself to draw from one book while denigrating another.