- Zizek’s Second Coming
“God is dead,” proclaimed Nietzsche’s madman. Many readers, particularly undergraduate students, have been surprised by the passing of God; Nietzsche’s implication that God once lived does not comfortably fit their sense of Nietzsche as an atheist. More than a century later, Slavoj Zizek surprises readers with his suggestion that God is still alive and kicking in a post-Hegelian/post-Marxist/post-modern world. Zizek’s project shares many elements with Nietzsche’s, in spite of its opposite account of God’s health, including, most importantly, the interest they share in liberating people from their infatuation with the Other that dominates their lives—most significantly for Zizek, from the Big Other that governs the ideological systems of meaning in which our “choices” occur. Zizek, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and amazingly popular critical theorist, attempts in On Belief to bring Christ back as the herald of a politics by which the choice, the real choice (as well as the choice of the real), of meaning can be faced.
The support for this argument is not easy to follow: Zizek’s language is brisk, lively, and smart, but it is not clearly structured. Nor does his style of writing in pithy aphoristic paragraphs lend itself to broad summary (much like Nietzsche’s style). But this book is clearly an attempt by Zizek to reposition the social meaning and power of Christianity in order to dispose of a range of social hierarchies (race, nation, sex, and class, at least); it is difficult to think of a more challenging yet rewarding political project. Zizek is unwilling to leave the territory of Christianity to the ostensibly Christian institutions and interpretations currently acting to maintain the liberal-capitalist empire. In a way similar to the destruction that Pauline Christianity wrought on the Roman Empire, Zizek wants to use a reconfigured Christianity to ease the grip of liberal-capitalist hegemony. “What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global ‘multiculturalist’ polity,” he confides, “we should do with regard to today’s Empire” (5).
This re-imagined Christianity, Zizek claims, is the suppressed truth of Christianity, the liberating power of love for the imperfections of the Other: “the ultimate secret of the Christian love is, perhaps, the loving attachment to the Other’s imperfection” (147). Affection for the sins and weaknesses of others is coupled with the erasure of a final judgment, in part because our attachment to the gap in the perfection of others is exactly what God loves about us. Furthermore, this gap is the way in which humans are created in the image of God. “When I, a human being, experience myself as cut off from God, at that very moment of the utmost abjection, I am absolutely close to God, since I find myself in the position of the abandoned Christ,” explains Zizek (146). Because Christ is like us, an abandoned and imperfect sinner, he is loved by God and by us. “And it is only within this horizon that the properly Christian Love can emerge, a Love beyond Mercy. Love is always love for the Other insofar as he is lacking—we love the Other BECAUSE of his limitation, helplessness, ordinariness even” (146–7). Thus Zizek’s Christianity subverts the idealization we feel toward the Other by filling this connection with not our desire so much as our affection for the empty desire of the Other.
Zizek’s version of Christianity is, he claims, a way to will the return of the repressed as a symbolic act.
The symbolic act is best conceived of as the purely formal, self-referential, gesture of the self-assertion of one’s subjective position. Let us take a situation of the political defeat of some working-class initiative; what one should accomplish at this moment to reassert one’s identity is precisely the symbolic act: stage a common event in which some shared ritual (song or whatsoever) is performed, an event which contains no positive political program—its message is only the purely performative assertion: “We...