- Killing the Big Other
The first book in his “Short Circuits” series from MIT Press, Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity strives to radicalize belief and action by revaluing the solid, divine foundation usually thought to underpin religious faith. The book’s title might be misleading for those interested in the study of puppetry or dwarves, for this work does not share a common focus with Susan Stewart’s On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection or Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets.
Instead, The Puppet and the Dwarf alludes to the first of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin describes “an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess.” Inside the chess-playing puppet is “a little hunchback who was an expert chess player” who controls the puppet’s moves. This absurd Turing Machine illustrates the trick involved in theoretical discourse: “the puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone, if it enlists the service of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight” (253). Benjamin’s formulation implicates theology as the hidden motor of historical materialism, and the thesis aphoristically argues that “materialist” accounts of history are ultimately guided by theological narratives of salvation, of a progressively inclined “invisible hand,” or of the divine coming of class consciousness. Zizek reverses this formulation to mount an attack not against theology in general or Christianity in particular, but against deconstruction.
At the outset of the book, Zizek claims that in our historical moment “the theological dimension is given a new lease on life in the guise of the postsecular ‘Messianic’ turn of deconstruction” (3). Deconstruction assumes the position of Benjamin’s chess-playing puppet, while historical materialism retreats to the dwarf’s position. Never sparing of deconstruction, Zizek’s formulation here and throughout unapologetically links deconstruction to the pasty liberalism he is so fond of deriding. However, lurking behind Zizek’s usual critique of liberal political positions (multiculturalism, identity politics, human rights), there lies a more intriguing relation to deconstruction. Zizek devotes a great number of pages in this book to Saint Paul, one of his heroes, and Jesus, a man whom he values not as the son of God but as he who kills himself in order to save himself from becoming doxa. Jesus seems to figure here as none other than Jacques Derrida, the messianic voice of deconstruction, around whom disciples gather, and Paul as none other than Zizek himself, the outsider who rigorously theorizes and institutionalizes the excess out of the dominant tradition. Christianity serves as the allegory through which Zizek critiques and proposes a solution to the apolitical “messianism” of deconstruction.
The messianic promise has recently taken the shape of “elsewhere” in Derrida’s writings. As he claims in Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, this elsewhere exists “on the shores” of language, just barely unreachable and unspeakable, but nevertheless it is that which constitutes language’s promise. In Monolingualism of the Other, Derrida constructs a dialogue on the limits of language, and language’s limits give way to the promise of an “elsewhere”:
you at once appreciate the source of my sufferings, the place of my passions, my desires, my prayers, the vocation of my hopes, since this language runs right across them all. But I am wrong, wrong to speak of a crossing and a place. For it is on the shores of the French language, uniquely, and neither inside nor outside it, on the unplaceable line of its coast that, since forever, and lastingly [à demeure], I wonder if one can love, enjoy oneself [jouir], pray, die from pain, or just die, plain and simple, in another language or without telling one about it, without even speaking at all.(2)
Occurring “on the shores” of language, this “wonder” reaches for the promise of unmediated transparency. Derrida here seriously entertains...