Zizek and Theology by Adam Kotsko

Adam Kotsko’s recent book, Žižek and Theology, is a great addition to the growing library of commentaries, introductions and appropriations surrounding Slavoj Žižek‘s philosophical work. It was only recently published in the States by T & T clark and it comes in the series “Philosophy and Theology,” which promises to be a pretty good series with upcoming titles covering  Nietzsche, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger and Badiou. I was pretty excited (and a bit surprised) to see “Žižek and Theology” this on the shelf of our local bookstore (Vroman’s) in Pasadena so I grabbed the last copy while I had the chance.

The book gives a general overview of Žižek’s work starting with Sublime Object of Ideology and moves all the way up to The Parallax View offering a stunningly thorough, yet never bogged down, tour of the key arguments and development of Žižek’s thought since 1989. Also, in the introduction and first chapter of the book Kotsko offers brief, but helpful, explanations of Žižek’s (particular) use of Hegel, Marx and Lacan. Anyone who’s tried to tackle Žižek’s corpus knows just how necessary it is to get one’s head around his triad of dialogue partners. Finally, Kotsko goes further into developing Žižek’s special vocabulary, which more times than not relies on Marxist-Lacanian language that’s fairly loaded. I found his discussions on ideology, the big Other, Jouissance, object petit a, and the Real, to be particularly insightful, even after I’ve done a good amount of reading Žižek. In fact, I’d stress that this book isn’t an introduction in any classic sense, nor does it claim to be. While it does introduce influences, common language and themes Žižek employs, it at no point should be the first thing on Žižek you read unless you are at least somewhat versed in the areas of philosophy and psychoanalysis suggested above.

While the first part of the book works as a kind of background to this influential thinker, chapter three is when you arrive at the heart of the book. In this section Kotsko shines, developing Žižek’s approach to and usage of theology, he answers the question as to why an atheist might be interested in theology (one quick, and not thorough enough answer, is that it offers a universal truth that can undermine capitalism better than Marxism can on its own). Instead of simply indexing and reflecting on all the various theological themes that arise within Žižek’s texts, Kotsko offers a glimpse into what is certainly an “idiosyncratic understanding of the origin of Christianity and its relationship to paganism and Judaism.” For instance, Jesus becomes the new Job in Žižek’s theology, where Job faced the meaninglessness of suffering to the point that even God himself doesn’t offer any real explanation for the evil Job endured. This shift from seeing Jesus not as a new Moses (or Adam), but as a new Job leads him to suggest that Christ cannot be demythologized, if he were he’d be no different than Job, but rather Jesus is God. Instead of receiving the ‘non-answer’ that Job gets (and in his system Job is the first critic of ideology) from God, Jesus faces more radical consequences. As Chesterton says, ‘God seemed for an instant to be an atheist,’ and for Žižek this translates into God (Jesus) facing up to his own powerlessness. What arises out of this (in Žižek’s model) then is the community of the Holy Spirit which lacks the support of the big Other which is ultimately a key for understanding. Kotsko says,

“In order to jettison that ‘perverse core’, Christianity must return to its founding moment as the ‘religion of atheism’, the religion in which even God is an atheist. Perversion is an identification with the obscene jouissance that underwrites the authority of the big Other, but the authentic gesture of Christianity is acknowledging the non-existence of the big Other: ‘When Christ dies, what dies with him is the secret hope discernible in ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’: the hope that there is a father who has abandoned me. The “Holy Spirit” [as the new kind of social bond that arises in Christ’s death] is the community deprived of its support of the big Other.’ Thus Žižek’s goal in turning to the Christian tradition is not so much to reclaim religion as to combat ‘the religious hard core that survives even in humanism, even up to Stalinism, with its belief in History as the ‘big Other.’ that decides on the objective meaning of our deeds.’ For Christianity to regain its subversive kernel today, therefore, it must take the risk of an authentic Žižekian ethical act, in the sense of a self-directed choice of the worst, by ‘abandoning the shell of its institutional organization (and, even more so, of its specific religious experience)'” (99).

Now obviously all of this won’t sit well with Christians but Kostko is seeking to explain why Žižek has found Christianity important for his project (not get him ordained).

Finally, the other part I really liked in the book is the last chapter where Kotsko discusses a variety of theologians who have engaged Žižek’s work. From the John Milbank and Graham Ward of the Radical Orthodoxy, to the Anabaptist Gerald Biesecker-Mast, to what Kotsko considers the best appropriating of Žižek’s overall thought so far, Interstices of the Sublime by Clayton Crockett. Lastly, he ends the final chapter by offering a few ways forward, looking at Žižek’s use of correlation (and Paul Tillich), how tradition figures in his Marxist reading, and what a religionless Christianity akin to Bonehoffer’s own vision might look like picking up some of Žižek’s own cues on this very idea.

Overall, I thought the book was great, I felt like it really helped me to get some headway with the reading I’ve already done in this area and helped me to see what the implications of Žižek’s thought is on Christianity. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in engaging Zizek at a theologically advanced level.

For a more in depth review on particular points of the book check out Ben Myers post.

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