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The Puppet and the DwarfReview - The Puppet and the Dwarf
The Perverse Core of Christianity
by Slavoj Zizek
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Jan 8th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 2)

According to Slavoj Zizek, what constitutes, as per the sub-title of this book, the "perverse core" of the Christian religion? In a properly Lacanian fashion, Zizek counter-intuitively characterizes perverts not as Sadean rebels thoroughly throwing off the shackles of the reigning normative order, but, rather, as covert, closet conservatives, as secretly wedded to the prohibitive authority they loudly claim to heedlessly defy. Simply put, the pervert's pleasure is contingent upon the familiar "forbidden fruit" effect; his/her transgressions take on their alluring, titillating hue only so long as the perverse subject believes in the existence of (to put it in Lacan's terms) an effective socio-symbolic "big Other." Zizek's point about perversion here can be illustrated through recourse to the inverting twist on Dostoyevsky that Lacan proposes in his seventeenth seminar: "If God is dead, then nothing is permitted." That is to say, the pervert needs "God" qua the prohibitory big Other in order to sustain his/her peculiar libidinal economy. Thus, Zizek concludes, perversion is ultimately about setting up and sustaining this Other, an Other Lacan declares not to exist ("Le grand Autre n'existe pas"). Perverse subjectivity desperately attempts to evade the confrontation with the big Other's non-existence. Similarly, as Zizek points out in the concluding paragraphs of this volume, the end of analysis, involving the "dissolution of the transference" and the fall of the "subject supposed to know"--the analyst is no longer related to by the analysand as an omniscient master possessing the secret to his/her unconscious being, his/her "true nature"--amounts to nothing less than the painful acceptance that the big Other does not exist, that one is, on a certain fundamental level, profoundly and inescapably alone with nothing and nobody to provide reassuring guarantees of any sort.

So, what connects Christianity with perversion here? Obviously, in terms of its official, established theology, the Christian religion, like all monotheistic religions, affirms the existence of God (the biggest big Other of them all). And, moreover, it distinguishes itself by virtue of its absolutely central assertion that God became man in the figure of Jesus Christ. But, Zizek maintains, this very figure internally subverts the accepted theological framework of the religion bearing his name. On several occasions (including the final paragraph of the book), Zizek highlights the moment when the dying Christ, hanging from his cross, lapses in his belief, loses his faith, and agonizingly laments, "Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?" At this moment, the supposed "Son of God" faces, in his darkest hour, the possibility that the divine, paternal Other isn't really out there, that this Father is non-existent, that no reply or response is forthcoming. In identifying with Christ, the Christian believer (unwittingly and inadvertently) identifies with this anguished position of doubt and disbelief. Perhaps the Christian believer is a "pervert" insofar as he/she "knows full well, but nonetheless," namely, he/she disavows, in the precise psychoanalytic sense of Verleugnung, this core message of the big Other's non-existence that the Christian religion itself conveys yet is unable to accept (this moment of Christ-on-the-Cross would therefore be, in relation to Christianity, something "extimate," that is, an intimate-yet-alien kernel, an inner foreignness). What replaces God qua the transcendent Other is the "Holy Spirit" as the symbolic community immanent to this world. On the Zizekian reading, Christianity is the religion of immanence (as opposed to, for example, the Judaism Zizek links to the Levinasian-Derridean theme of the transcendence of the infinitely withdrawing Other--as he notes, the Christian notion of God-become-man emphasizes "sameness" rather than "otherness," stressing how divinity is not antithetical to humanity). Paradoxically, Christianity can only fully become itself by destroying itself, by discarding its theological trappings and affirming its "atheistic" confrontation with the absence of any big Other beyond its fragile symbolic community of forsaken followers.

Furthermore, Zizek deftly exploits the figure of Christ to effectuate a series of dialectical reversals of standard oppositions and familiar dichotomies. To begin with, he describes (in an avowedly Schellingian style) God's becoming man not as a demeaning, devaluing descent in which an omnipotent and infinite divine entity voluntarily shackles itself to the constraints of temporal finitude through embodied incarnation in human flesh, but, instead, as a liberating ascent out of the sterile, lifeless enclosure of immobile timelessness. In this myth, the "fall" of God into finite existence is itself a sort of redemption. Hence, Zizek here upends the normal contrast between the prison-house of temporal finitude and the ecstatic transcendence of eternity--time is tantamount to the clearing of openness, whereas timelessness represents a frozen, closed space. Along related thematic lines, Zizek insists that, "incompleteness is, in a way, higher than completion" (pg. 115).

In the Zizekian theological schema here, it isn't the case that, initially, there exists the separation between God and man, and, subsequently, Christ arises as a bridge spanning this divide. Rather, "God" (as Christ) is the name for the very gap between divinity and humanity: divinity isn't just divinity, but the divinity within humanity; correlatively, humanity isn't just humanity, but the humanity within divinity. Likewise, Zizek dwells upon meaning-of-life sorts of questions apropos of the preceding notions. He insists that life only has value so long as it contains within itself a certain excessiveness--"What makes life 'worth living' is the very excess of life: the awareness that there is something for which we are ready to risk our life (we may call this excess 'freedom,' 'honor,' dignity,' 'autonomy,' etc.). Only when we are ready to take this risk are we really alive" (pg. 95). Or, as he puts it a few pages later, "It is crucial… to assert some kind of primordial excess or too-muchness of life itself: human life never coincides with itself; to be fully alive means to be larger than life, and a morbid denial of life is not a denial of life itself, but, rather, the denial of this excess" (pg. 98). Humanity is material-biological life once it takes on something more than itself, something over-and-above itself (i.e., its preservation, its survival) as a measure of significance or worth. Being reduced to the state where the sole value is clinging to material-biological life at all costs is, therefore, dehumanizing. And, as Zizek argues, this Nietzschean "Last Man" stance ultimately devalues the same life it pathetically clings to at the expense of the value-bestowing "excess of life"--"What if, when we focus on mere survival, even if it is qualified as 'having a good time,' what we ultimately lose is life itself?" (pg. 94). One could speculate that this distinction between life and its excess coincides with the distinction between the all-too-human and the divine-within-the-human.

The Puppet and the Dwarf also revisits familiar Zizekian topics and problematics, especially in terms of further developments of his ongoing discussions of the issue of freedom and the register of the Real. Zizek contends that, "Freedom is not a blissfully neutral state of harmony and balance, but the very violent act which disturbs this balance" (pg. 31). The Lacanian Act (qua a sudden, seemingly ex nihilo break with the status quo "run of things") creates the space for autonomous subjectivity by shattering the constraints of a present order (calm, reflective deliberation by a subject doesn't precede an act as a calculated intervention in a certain state of affairs--rather, the subject is a result of an act having catalyzed it into effective existence). Although all of this is, by now, quite familiar to his long-time readers--he also reiterates the thesis (from the 1991 book For they know not what they do) that freedom can only be seen and appreciated retroactively, rather than directly experienced by agents during the process of an engaged historical struggle--Zizek here proposes two new specifications regarding his analysis of freedom. First, he portrays subjective autonomy as inextricably linked to or conditioned by the confrontation with "the opacity of the Other's desire" (pg. 129). On the Lacanian account, the (Real) Other, as the enigmatic, impenetrable "Thing" (i.e., Freud's Nebenmensch [neighbor] as das Ding, akin to the unknowable Kantian Ding an sich), is an eternal mystery for the subject. As Zizek maintains elsewhere (most notably, in the 1997 essay on Schelling entitled "The Abyss of Freedom"), subjectivity itself is, at least in part, an effect of Lacan's "Che vuoi?" (i.e., the question "What does the Other want?"). In the face of the irreducible inscrutability of the desires of others, the subject is thrown back upon itself, forced to be "free" insofar as there is no determinate mandate from the Other that could be clung to as something safe and solid. Zizek then proceeds to observe, "how lucky we are to be able to act ethically," that, "autonomy and grace are intertwined" (pg. 159). In an implicitly Badiouian manner, he hints that autonomous subjectivity isn't a permanent default status of the human individual. Rather, such subjectivity is literally extra-ordinary (or, as Badiou describes it, "rare" and "exceptional"), a momentary blessing of "grace" in terms of an opportunity-to-be-free that briefly flashes upon the surface of mundane reality with certain privileged and unpredictable occurrences.

A general exegetical consensus amongst commentators on Zizek's work is that his central obsession, persisting throughout the entire span of his rapidly expanding corpus, consists in repeated (re-)elaborations of the Lacanian register of the Real. Building upon portions of his 2001 text On Belief, his 2002 foreword to the second edition of For they know not what they do, and Alenka Zupancic's recently developed Lacanian reading of Nietzsche (The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Two), Zizek adds further inflections and nuances to his understanding of the Real. In a key passage, he states, "The Real is… simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle that prevents this direct access; the Thing that eludes our grasp and the distorting screen that makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second… what prevents us from accessing the Thing directly is the Thing itself" (pg. 77). In On Belief, Zizek suggests that the Real reflects within itself the tripartite structure of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary; the Real consists of a Real Real (as what is unbearably, traumatically horrible), a Symbolic Real (as pure material signifiers with a structure devoid of meaning or significance), and an Imaginary Real (as a mysterious je ne sais quoi embedded within the surface of appearances that gives them their alluring, moving powers). In the above quotation from The Puppet and the Dwarf, another tripartite reading of the Real is advanced (one could describe this triad in Kantian language, which would be appropriate, since Zizek utilizes Kant and Hegel in this context to elaborate all of this: the noumenal Real (as the inaccessible Thing-in-itself), the phenomenal Real (as the "distorting screen" of positioned subjective-perspectival mediation barring immediate, undistorted contact with the Thing-in-itself), and the gap itself between the noumenal Real and the phenomenal Real (as the ultimately unrepresentable discrepancy between noumena and phenomena). He also reaffirms his more recent emphasis (contrasted with his depiction of the Real in such early texts as The Sublime Object of Ideology [1989]) on the notion that the Real is entirely immanent to (Imaginary-Symbolic) phenomenal reality. That is to say, the Real isn't the "beyond" of an exteriority/anteriority. Rather, "The multiple perspectival inconsistencies between phenomena are not an effect of the impact of the transcendent Thing--on the contrary, this Thing is nothing but the ontologization of the inconsistency between phenomena" (pg. 66). Instead of being a "hard kernel" qua underlying noumenal bedrock of ontological substance, the Real is, in this account, a residual appearance-effect, an ephemeral by-product generated for the purposes of rendering an inconsistent reality apparently consistent.

In various places, Zizek refers to examples of "substances deprived of their substance" (such as, for example, caffeine-free diet cola). The Puppet and the Dwarf, through the audacious and startling conceptual inversions that have become well-known hallmarks of a distinctively Zizekian method of procedure, offers something similar: a paradoxical religion without religion, more specifically, "Christianity as the religion of atheism" (pg. 171). Zizek ends by calling for the Christian religion to shed its religiosity so as to preserve and affirm its atheistic "essence" (i.e., its implicit confrontation with the non-existence of the big Other). Assuming that this could ever even happen, what would result from such an Aufhebung-like self-cancellation? What would arise from the ashes of an internally generated implosion of Christianity? What would be gained by embracing an atheism specifically arrived at vis--vis the detour of a passage through monotheistic theology? Readers are left waiting for answers yet-to-come.

 

2004 Adrian Johnston

 

Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory.


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