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  • A Legacy of Freaks
  • Christopher Pizzino
Review of: Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? New York: Verso, 2000.

In one of the more arresting moments in The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Zizek connects the Pauline concept of agape, commonly known as Christian love, to the closing shot of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue.1 The shot is a series of tableaux, each focused on a character somehow related to the life of the film’s heroine, Julie. The tableaux are separated by a formless void in which each seems to float. After panning through the void from one character to another, the camera comes to rest on the weeping face of Julie herself. Emotionally paralyzed by the death of her husband and child, she has moved through the film untouched by her encounters with those around her. The effect of the conclusion is to suggest that Julie has delivered herself from paralysis and once again become a participant in the psychic life of others. Her tears indicate that “her work of mourning is accomplished, she is reconciled with the universe; her tears are not the tears of sadness and pain, but the tears of agape, of a Yes! to life in its mysterious synchronic multitude” (103). The tone is unusually lyrical for Zizek, and indeed for cultural theory in general, yet it is easy to recognize the standard maneuver being executed here. A canonical theoretical (or in this case theological) text is expounded using a popular text as an example. In this instance as in previous works, what distinguishes Zizek’s connections from those of most other cultural theorists (aside from their frequency) is the way the popular text becomes more than mere illustration. The usual priorities could be said to be reversed; theory itself seems the subsidiary thing. One might observe in the provocative tone of overstatement Zizek has mastered that if we examine Paul’s ultimate statement of the nature of agape, the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, it amounts only to a sort of illustration of the conclusion of Blue (in fact the passage is being sung in the background). In his attempt to express an affirmation that could overcome the fragmentation of historical experience, Paul creates a shadowy and insufficient illustration of the “mysterious, synchronic” truth expressed by Kieslowski’s camera.

As bracing as such moments are, Zizek’s allegiance to a specific set of theoretical touchstones lets us know that theory, or at least a certain kind of theory, never remains in the supporting role for long. Though the tone of the commentary on Blue is climactic, the work of Zizek’s argument is not complete until the book’s final chapter, in which agape itself is connected to Marxist and psychoanalytic points of reference. Like the use of popular culture, this argumentative procedure is now familiar. In a sense Zizek reads Paul’s theology much as he has read an array of Western philosophers, notably Hegel and Schelling. The wide field of application sheds light on the status of both philosophy and popular culture. Examples from either sphere gain value insofar as they express, in whatever form, the truths of the powerful theoretical principles Zizek has formed from his readings of Marx on the one hand and Lacan and Freud on the other. Working on the canon of Western philosophy in this way leaves Zizek open to the challenge that although he has given us new ways to understand Marx, Freud, and Lacan, he has distorted our view of the raw material on which he operates. The question of distortion, however, is likely to be more interesting if we follow Zizek’s own habits of investigation and reverse the direction of inquiry, asking in what ways his own work is affected by his appropriations. Such a question seems particularly relevant for this book, his first to give sustained attention to Christian theology. The question to ask, then, is not how Zizek distorts Christianity but how the presence of Christianity distorts Zizek. The distortion turns out to have a familiar shape. By asserting from a perspective one could provisionally define as secular that Christianity is “worth fighting for...

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