The current condition of cultural theory should evoke Christian pity and concern. Cultural theorists today lack the theoretical resources necessary for interesting intellectual work; and they are nostalgic for a lost golden age (the 1960s and some of the ’70s) in which those resources seemed to be both available and usable for the transformation of society. That the pathos of this condition is evident to those inside the discipline as well as to those outside is suggested by the increasing number of histories of the theoretical excitements of the past forty years with mournful titles like Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (2004). It is also suggested by the frequency with which cultural theorists are now turning to analysis and exposition of the conceptual resources and classic texts of Christianity as prompts and supports for their own work. This should not surprise Christians: our intellectual tradition is long-lived, rich, and subtle, and any attempt by European thinkers to do without it is not likely to last. But there is more to this renewed interest in Christianity by cultural critics, I think, and the best word for that extra element is “yearning.”
Forty years or so ago, somewhere around Philip Larkin’s annus mirabilis of 1963 (“Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”), new theoretical movements began to stir in Europe. They began in grand style, growing out of (and in part rejecting) the formalistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure (in linguistics), Claude Lévi-Strauss (in anthropology), and Roman Jakobson (in literary theory). To this they married the new Marxism of the postwar European left, for which Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno were numinous figures; and, as political excitements grew more intense in France, those manning the barricades in 1968 were often also the high priests (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan) of these new theoretical movements, now beginning to be called postmodern and post-structuralist, and soon to spawn yet more offspring: new historicism, post-colonialism, subaltern studies, and, eventually and most broadly, cultural theory, which is now becoming the preferred label in the American university for the humanities in general.
The “culture” in “cultural theory” can mean just about anything. By the 1980s it included, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “pleasure, desire, arts, language, the media, the body, gender, ethnicity.” Also—and here the transformation of structuralism is most obvious—cultural phenomena begin to be treated as local performances, bereft of universal norms, solid foundations, meta-narratives, objective knowledge, and rigid identities. Cultural theorists began, as the 1970s progressed, to favor the margins over the center, the transgressive over the conservative, the fluid over the stable, the particular over the general, and the popular over the elite. The totalizing narrative, the complete theory, the desire to explain everything—these became increasingly suspect; and that suspicion was directed indiscriminately at Marxism and (when it was considered at all) at Christianity.
Along with that suspicion went a gradual dilution of the properly political passions, and this dilution was hastened by the symbolic contrast between Paris in 1968 and Berlin in 1989. In the former, revolution seemed possible: the grand theorists of the time had not yet separated their theoretical work from attention to political and social injustice, and they were almost without exception Marxists or Maoists or both at once. The events of 1968 in Paris seemed to signal a natural affinity between political revolution and a post-structuralism on the brink of cultural studies. Everything, it seemed, could be made new. But as the wall came down in Berlin in 1989, socialist revolution seemed no longer possible: cultural studies had lost its political fervor (though not its libidinal interests: the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s Économie libidinale in 1974 is a marker for this transition), and grand theory of the classical Marxist kind became harder and harder seriously to defend. Cultural theory in the United States is now practiced almost entirely within the walls of the university, and although it can still make revolutionary sounds—hollow talk about the marginalized and the oppressed is constant—the revolution it has in mind is sought only in the achievements of curriculum-reform committees.
Terry Eagleton tells this story well, and with a schadenfreude-laced gloom: for him it is a narrative of decline, and he serves as my first instance of a cultural theorist’s Christian yearnings, and as a teller, from the inside, of an important part of the story that explains those yearnings. Eagleton is a working-class Englishman of Irish extraction, born in Salford (one of Northern England’s more depressing places) in 1943, and now Professor of English and Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. He is Catholic in the sense that he was baptized, educated, and thoroughly formed by the Church. In his 2001 memoir, The Gatekeeper, there are affecting and funny descriptions of his service as altar boy in the 1950s, of his education in Catholic schools, and of his toying with the idea of the priesthood in the late 1950s—he briefly visited a minor seminary with this in mind but decided that sex and literature were more interesting than celibacy and liturgy. And although Eagleton appears to have abandoned his Catholicism by his middle twenties, and certainly is in no danger of being thought doctrinally orthodox, there is in his work none of the bitterness and anger so often evident in the recollections of American lapsed Catholics. Quite the contrary: his Catholic education, he thinks, made it easy for him to become both a Marxist and a literary theorist, the former because the Church made political liberalism unattractive from the beginning (“The path from the Tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seems”—so, of course, is the path back), and the latter because his Catholicism accustomed him to combining “rigorous thought with sensuous symbolism, the analytic with the aesthetic.” These are entirely accurate judgments; Eagleton adds to them the claim that his Catholicism made him alive to the depth of human savagery (he thinks the tag homo homini lupus unjust to wolves, and, of course, he is right) and to the radicality that any solution to it would need.
Eagleton is, then, a post-Catholic Marxist whose connections with various more or less militant leftist political organizations in England and Ireland have had all the complication and flavor made inevitable by the fissiparous tendencies of the militant left. The Catholics he likes are also Marxist: he had a long and close connection at Oxford and in Ireland with Herbert McCabe, the English (later Irish) Dominican, who died in 2001, and whose political sympathies were very much in accord with Eagleton’s. Eagleton dedicated his novel about Wittgenstein, Saints and Scholars (1987), to McCabe, and writes in the preface to After Theory that the influence of McCabe’s thought on his argument is so pervasive that it is impossible to localize. The literary and cultural theorists he likes, too, are those who have not been seduced by the detachment of signifiers from signifieds and have not been led by the unrestrained quest for intellectual jouissance to abandon the realism necessary for accurate diagnosis of social and political injustice and abuse as well as for the work (theoretical and practical) required to correct those things.
Eagleton has held academic positions at Oxford and Cambridge, and has lectured and taught throughout the world. He describes himself as specializing in literary and cultural theory and in the English-language literature and culture of Ireland, and he has written massively, obsessively—more than thirty books and hundreds of articles and essays. Much of what he writes is haute vulgarization of the best kind: witty, thoughtful, and accurate analyses of and commentaries upon the thought of other contemporary theorists. This is the genre to which After Theory belongs. In it, Eagleton gives a brief history of what he takes to be the rise and fall of high cultural theory and a set of recommendations as to what should be done about it. He would like to salvage modes of speaking and thinking that encourage a political and social order that does not ignore (but rather sees with clarity) human deprivation, and that makes possible action aimed at remedying it. For this salvage operation he turns to Aristotle and Aquinas.
This move is already interesting. Eagleton does not turn to classical Marxist theory, realist though it is. He assumes that it has no purchase on the present, and he is correct. Where else, then, to look? It is not only Eagleton’s Catholic heritage that predisposes him to look at Aristotle and Aquinas, though no doubt that plays a part. It is also that there really is nowhere else to look. Eagleton’s narrative of decline clears the field: if the Babylon of the market has captured cultural theory, and if the nation-state and the university are now hostage to the corporation, the gaze in search of an intellectual tradition with sufficient resources and independence to do what Eagleton wants done must turn to the religions and the intellectual traditions they harbor.
Eagleton sees clearly that if the political position he wishes to occupy is to be defended against anti-essentialists, tribalists, and (perhaps above all) liberals, this must be done by reclaiming the Aristotelian-Thomist language of truth and virtue. His reclamation is witty and convincing; to most Catholics it will be rather obvious. He begins with truth, claiming that there are truths of a universal sort—indeed, that it is characteristic of the proper usage of the predicate “is true” to attribute universality to the claims to which it is attached. If, he says, “racism is evil” is true, then it is true not just for me and you and other right-thinking (but inevitably Hamlet-like) liberals, but just true, for all and everywhere. But not only that: “[I]t belongs to our dignity as moderately rational creatures to know the truth,” he says, and this is an important political fact because its denial eviscerates political action of passion and finally even of possibility.
To say that something belongs to our dignity is to say that we have a nature, “a way of living which is peculiar to being a successful human, and which, if we are true to it, will allow us to prosper.” This nature is neither infinitely flexible nor subject to our own decisions. It is, instead, what we are. Offending against its demands brings trouble and removes the possibility of flourishing; acceding to them brings the happiness that consists in becoming what we should be (Eagleton is quite aware that “happiness” used in this sense has little or nothing to do with feeling good). The know-how needed to live as our nature requires is virtue; and in explaining what this means Eagleton happily draws, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, upon both Aristotle and Aquinas. He stops short of the theological virtues, of course: the closest approach he makes to explicitly Christian talk about these matters is to say that we fulfill our nature when we become occasions for one another’s fulfillment—an insight which he also likes to express by saying that our nature is constitutively political.
Eagleton identifies capitalism and liberalism as the main enemies of this way of understanding ourselves. Capitalism is committed, in his opinion, to the idea that humans are infinitely plastic, that our appetites can be shaped into ever-new forms without constraint by nature. The market requires such a view so that it can educate our desires into inexhaustibly new patterns of need and consumption. And liberalism is the enemy of virtue-theory, he thinks, because of its subjectivism and its tendency to be unable to commit itself to anything other than a formal set of constraints upon what human beings should do. Capitalism and liberalism are among Marxism’s traditional enemies. But as so conceived they are also, in considerable part, the enemies of Catholicism. Pope John Paul II’s objections to the empty formalism of successive drafts of the prolegomenon to the European Union’s Constitution are in essence the same as Eagleton’s objections to liberalism; and the critique of unconstrained capitalism found in such papal encyclicals as Rerum Novarum or Centesimus Annus would not be out of place in the pages of After Theory.
Eagleton never appeals to God, of course. For him, human nature and human virtue have nothing to do with the God who declares himself to Moses or who becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ. But in most other respects his critique of academic practice after the ruin of Marxist cultural theory is one that Catholics might embrace. Rehabilitating Marxism with the Egyptian gold of Aristotle and Aquinas is likely, though, to bring into being what to Marxists will seem an idol whose face bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ’s. And this should not be surprising to Christians: Christian wisdom is not as easily separable from the person of Christ as Eagleton appears to think.
Eagleton is not the only eminent cultural theorist driven to Christian resources by lack and nostalgia. Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998)—who to Eagleton is a figure representative of what went wrong with theory and who is my second instance of Christian yearnings—moved in this direction at the end of his life. Lyotard was trained as a philosopher, and after an early career teaching in secondary schools and working as theorist and activist for the group Socialisme ou barbarie (the name accurately indicates the range of alternatives it entertained), he settled down to an academic career in the higher reaches of the French academy with frequent forays into the U.S. At the time of his death his reputation had passed its peak, but during the 1970s and ’80s it stood very high indeed, and in the English-speaking world he was during those years treated as a minor deity by his acolytes and as something close to a charlatan—a virtuoso of obscurantism and pretension—by his detractors. Eagleton dismisses him as someone who, after the glory days of the ’60s, abandoned Marxism for mysticism, for intergalactic travel (on both of which Lyotard has written), and—worst of all—for Giscard d’Estaing, whom he supported in the French elections of 1974.
Eagleton is too critical. Lyotard was in fact a thinker and writer (in the oracular-poetical style) of great gifts. His La Condition postmoderne (1979) stated with relative clarity and brevity the essential commitments of high post-structuralist theory and is still a frequent point of reference. And his work of the 1980s and early ’90s, especially Le Différend (1983), and Leçons sur l’analytique du sublime (1991) began to put into practice the positive intellectual program that had been suggested only negatively in his earlier work. Eagleton is right, however, about the reasons for Lyotard’s rejection of Marxism: once the possibility of justifying any particular mode of knowledge-production by appeal to a narrative external to itself (a meta-narrative, that is) has been jettisoned, the field is then open for a linguistic and conceptual play dazzled by its own excess and no longer moved by the desire for an orthodoxy that might be capable of accounting for everything by linguistic and conceptual procedures whose net nothing can escape. High theory is sublimely condensed into jouissance, and so Marxism is replaced as frame and motive for thought by the ecstatic quest for the sublime, evident most clearly in the search for what Lyotard calls the différend.
The différend is what makes an unpredictable and unaccountable difference. When it enters a particular language-game (Wittgenstein’s shadow hovers over Lyotard throughout the 1980s), it disrupts that game and forces those who try to take account of it to fall silent, to stop playing, and, eventually, to respond to the différend’s irreducible particularity without reducing it to a category given by some universalizing speculative-theoretical discourse, such as Christian theology or classical Marxist theory. Lyotard’s later work can, therefore, be understood as a poetics of the différend, which is to say also of the sublime. This poetics identifies thought’s work as a demand on language analogous to the demand a lover places on the beloved’s skin. Thought demands of language that it respond to caresses, that it be the tactile other, an endlessly alluring and never fully comprehensible surface. This libidinal search for the différend, for something that enters thought and language from without and cannot be fully accommodated by them, led Lyotard at the end of his life to Augustine. Among the last things he wrote was a set of notes for a book on Augustine, published posthumously as La Confession d’Augustin (1998).
In Lyotard’s reading, Augustine is not so much a Christian thinker as a poet of the sublime, someone whose own prose responds to the différend (God) in a peculiarly intense fashion. Augustine’s Neoplatonic metaphysics is dismissed by Lyotard with a casual wave of the hand (“the falsely wise arguments aiming to give substance to a metaphysics that is, after all, nothing but a hazardous allegoric and one, what is more, that is lax in its interpretation”), and he treats Augustine as a writer whose performance as such is intended to remove the writer before the face of God, who is the différend, “the Other, pure verb in act, life without remainder,” who cannot be measured by any language except that which undercuts its own distension in time by constant self-referential attention to its own incapacity to speak of the eternal.
There is a good deal in this. Lyotard is quite right that Augustine is deeply concerned with the relation between language’s temporality and truth’s eternity, and that his invocation of God in words is intended in large part to show the inadequacy of every such invocation. And Lyotard’s own skill with language permits him to replicate the tensions of Augustine’s prose. Christians who read Lyotard on Augustine will often feel themselves in the linguistic presence of Augustine ventriloquized: Lyotard’s writing has something of the same hallucinatory intensity and delight in the sound and structure of prose, and much of his book on Augustine is just a series of meditative embroideries upon Augustine’s own rhetorical effects in which Augustine is neither criticized nor engaged but rather is taken as occasion for Lyotard’s own linguistic jouissance—or, if you prefer a more Anglo-Saxon idiom, his desire to show off for his own pleasure and that of his readers. Though some of it is self-indulgent pyrotechnical display, the book as a whole is imbued with a genuine appreciation of what Augustine is up to in the Confessions, in the Psalm-commentary, and in the early treatises on language and interpretation. Lyotard is eloquent and accurate in his elaborations upon Augustine’s concern with the constant threat of non-being posed by time to thought and speech, and with the fact of his own enigmatic incomprehensibility to himself.
Lyotard’s Augustine is the poet, the rhetor, the lover of language’s capacity to depict its own incapacity to depict, the enigma, the pauper in the place of desolation and destitution which he shares with the prodigal. But it is not Augustine the bishop, the refuter of heresy, the user of the Church’s powers of governance and persuasion, the writer of a monastic rule, the theorist of the divine trinity. To point out this incompleteness is not to criticize Lyotard: his book is no treatise, no scientific biography; it has no aspiration to exhaustiveness. But to note the very restricted interest in Augustine that Lyotard shows is to raise the question of whether the Augustinian gold that he finds and molds can so easily be expropriated. For Augustine, the enigmatic poetry of confession is worthwhile because it is a response to divine gift, an instance of returning the gift to the giver. Lyotard sometimes seems to see this; but to see it clearly would be dazzlingly dangerous—it would be to begin to see that Augustine’s God is not only the unassimilable différend, but also the God of Abraham who has given not only his unassimilability but also himself as flesh. And from this Lyotard draws back, even while approaching it. Lyotard (in his late work, at least) was driven by hunger for the illimitable jouissance made possible only by the différend more different than which none can be thought. Augustine would have understood this very well: it is an instance of yearning, of the heart’s unquietness until it finds the peace given by explicit knowledge of the God of Abraham.
Lyotard and Eagleton, then, both mine Christian gold, Lyotard libidinally and Eagleton politically. And they are not the only ones. Among contemporary French post-structuralists about whom Eagleton has written respectfully is Alain Badiou (born in 1937). Badiou, an atheist, a Marxist with Maoist leanings, and a man quite without Eagleton’s memories of Christian orthodoxy or Lyotard’s ecstatic identification with Augustine’s linguistic raptures, has recently written a book on St. Paul.
Badiou was born in Morocco as a French citizen, and is among the French philosophical elite: educated in philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, he taught for thirty years at the University of Paris. His work, however, has only recently begun to appear in English, and because of the aggressive monolingualism of most American philosophers this means that he is only now beginning to gain a readership in the United States. Badiou is old enough to have been shaped essentially and irrevocably by the events of 1968 in Paris and by the French African colonies’ earlier bloody struggles for independence, and he fits Eagleton’s depiction of someone who does theory as it ought to be done, both then and since: Badiou was for a long time a Communist, in his case a member of the Marxist-Leninist Union des Jeunesses Communistes; he was also an occasional apologist for Mao’s Cultural Revolution and remains an active member of L’Organisation Politique, which is a militantly left political pressure group whose membership is mostly post-party Communist. This continued political activism distinguishes him from Lyotard and explains Eagleton’s approval of him.
It should not be surprising that Christianity and the Catholic Church have figured little in Badiou’s work until recently, and then only as the political and philosophical “other” destined for history’s dustbin and unworthy of sustained intellectual attention. His main philosophical goal has been to defend and elucidate a particular understanding of the relations among truth, subjectivity, the event, and the universal. His thought on these matters is complex, subtle, and interesting: it can be studied at length in L’Être et l’événement (1988), or more briefly in l’Éthique (1993). In these works he gives an account of how radical change is effected, and his central notion is that of the “la site événementielle,” the evental site, a place in which something radically other occurs, something that cannot be accommodated by the ordinary categories of its site and that makes a universal demand. What Badiou means by “event” is in its essentials also what Lyotard meant by différend: both men sought a category to permit analysis of the profoundly other’s entry into causal relations with the quotidian. Christians would say that what occurs at the evental site is revelatory; Badiou calls it revolutionary, but he recognizes that to speak of the event as he does is to speak of laicized grace—which is to say that he is throughout conscious of his own dependence upon Christian language and thought, and of his pressing need to uproot them and strip them of all specificity so that he is not forced by them into the arms of the God of Abraham.
Human subjects may be constituted (“subjectivated,” Badiou likes barbarously to say) by an authentic, continuing, and faithful response to this revolutionary event; and insofar as they are so constituted, they contribute to the radical transformation—a material transformation, of course, for him—of the social and political order in which they find themselves. Transformation, for Badiou, is possible only by means of an event that originates from outside that which is transformed by response to the event. The transformation is produced by a continuing attempt to discern the trace (the vestigium, Augustine would say) of the event in the social and political spheres.
Badiou’s reasons for turning to Paul also bear some similarity to Lyotard’s for turning to Augustine. For Lyotard, the sublime is most effectively present when the différend is truly and ecstatically different; for Badiou, the event transforms most profoundly when it is most unexpected, unexplained, and beyond the reach of any but a formal theory. For both, the Christian tradition provides what they can find nowhere else: it meets the theoretical lack. This is more obvious in Badiou’s case than in Lyotard’s, and the lack is more difficult for him to deal with than it was for Lyotard. Because of his political commitments and the nature of his philosophy, Badiou must treat Paul as a resource for political and social action, while Lyotard can treat Augustine as a prompt for linguistic display. The sense of loss from which Badiou reads Paul is palpable. He needs “a new militant figure . . . to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.” That figure (Badiou does not say but implies) is lost, frozen in the Gulag, crushed under the tracks of the Soviet tanks as they rolled into Prague, withered by the increasing willingness of China to accept capital’s blandishments, and dismembered by the breakup of the Soviet Empire. This loss can, he hopes, be supplied by Paul, but only if Paul is disjoined from the fable that is Christianity and read as advocating a “subject without identity and a law without support.”
This reading of Paul, thinks Badiou, can serve as a counterweight to the two logics that now dominate the world’s political, economic, and intellectual life: the logic of capitalism regnant, which subsumes the human subject into the consumer (much of what Badiou says about this is also said by John Paul II, but this is not a kinship he would wish to acknowledge); and the logic of identitarianism rampant, which subsumes the human subject into some ethnic (“French,” “African”), gender (“male,” “female”), or religious (“Christian,” “Muslim”) identity. All such subsumptions, thinks Badiou, make authentic subjectivation impossible—and he understands Paul’s proclamation of a subjectivity constituted only by faithful response to the resurrected Jesus to be a remedy for all this because it “names the subject according to the force of displacement conferred upon him”—displacement, that is, via baptism’s death, from every prior identity.
Paul, read in this way, is Badiou’s ideal anti-philosopher. He proclaims an utterly universal event to which the same revolutionary response is required from all. It is revolutionary because it wants to “destroy a model of society based on social inequality,” and its discourse is, from beginning to end, that of sheer, unanticipated event, event that dissolves the (Jewish) law’s demand, as well as the (Greek) totalizing search for wisdom. Those who hear and respond to this proclamation are reconstituted by filiation—they become sons and daughters of the event, no longer constituted by gender, ethnicity, habits of consumption, and so on.
What Badiou wants from Paul, then, is a pattern of thought capable of tearing “the lexicon of grace and encounter away from its religious confinement.” This is a purely formal reading: in it, the proclamation of Christ crucified is emptied of content and left only with function, the function of making it possible for all who respond to the proclamation subsequently to devote themselves to what has universal validity by showing them the emptiness of the contingencies they take to constitute their identities. Paul, in Badiou’s hands, is the master of the gesture whose only content is provided by what it encounters. Badiou has no interest in the substance of Paul’s ethic, and his interest in Christ’s resurrection is limited to the effects its proclamation may have on those who hear about it (he attributes, wrongly, that same limitation to Paul). What he does want from Paul, and what he thinks he gets, is a vantage point from which the twentieth century’s deadening ideologies of sameness—the unrestricted globalization of capital, the exhaustive identitarianism of ethnic or sexual sameness—can be resisted. This is what Badiou means by the logic of universalism. Universalism permits resistance to the imperialistic demands of the ideologies of particularity, and it does so not by coercive argument or legal demand, but rather by proclamation of a universal truth that can and should provoke a response. In this way, Badiou’s required militant figure stands forth.
It is interesting to note that this way of reading Paul requires Badiou to offer a strong defense of Paul against the now-traditional charges of misogyny and associated sins of oppressive particularity. Paul’s treatment of difference, claims Badiou, uses a principle of “subsequent symmetrization” according to which particular differences are affirmed (say, between men and women with respect to the covering of their hair), but only in such a way as to relate their possessors symmetrically to the universal event. In a nice formulation, Badiou says that for Paul differences are traversed by the truth in such a way that their bearers “carry the universal that happens to them like a grace.” Badiou is in this respect a much stronger defender of Paul than are many contemporary interpreters who identify themselves as Christian.
Badiou’s reading of Paul is, on the whole, innocent of contemporary New Testament scholarship, Catholic and Protestant alike. This is not entirely a bad thing: it permits him to write directly and spontaneously about Paul’s texts and their claims. But there are many points at which what he says stands in contradiction with how almost all New Testament scholars understand Paul; and his enterprise of separating Paul from, among other things, the God of Abraham is as quixotic as that of separating Marx from economics. Worse, there is much in Badiou’s reading of Paul that has the harshly stimulating flavor of old Protestant critiques of the Catholic Church (Paul is to the Church, says Badiou, as Lenin was to the Stalinist terror: a militant whose militancy gets co-opted by an ideology of sameness). It is also clear that Badiou’s interest in Paul signals no desire on his part to worship the God of Abraham by way of entry into communion with any Christian church.
There is also a persistent lack of clarity in Badiou’s understanding of truth: if Paul’s proclamation of Christ resurrected can be true even if Christ was not in fact resurrected, the conclusion must be that any proclamation with the formal properties he attributes to Paul’s proclamation can be true. But Badiou has elsewhere (and often) protested against the idea that, for example, Hitler’s proclamation of the Third Reich ought be categorized as evental. But presumably the only reason why it ought not to be is that its content is (in Badiou’s opinion) false. In its formal properties, Hitler’s proclamation seems difficult to distinguish from Lenin’s (or Paul’s). There is a conundrum here that Badiou does not resolve.
However, none of this is to say that Badiou’s book is without interest for Christian thinkers. It shows the depth of the yearning nostalgia to which post-Marxist cultural theorists are now almost inevitably subject. The golden calf Badiou has made of Paul is worthy of Christian attention, both as an instance of idol-building and as evidence of the extent to which Christian materials resist being made into idols. The face of his Paul, in spite of Badiou’s best efforts, still bears the iconic trace of Christ, and this trace is most fully and beautifully evident in what Badiou writes about the radical demand of Paul’s proclamation, and the possibility of ordering a life around response to it.
My last exemplar of Christian yearning—and in this case the yearning is almost fully acknowledged and understood—is Slavoj Zizek, in many ways the most interesting of the four. Eagleton writes about him with respect, and Zizek returns the compliment, as well as commenting favorably on Badiou’s treatment of St. Paul (these are incestuous circles). Zizek was born in 1949 in Ljubjlana, then in Yugoslavia, now in Slovenia. Three among his books published in the last five years—The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting for? (2000), On Belief(Thinking in Action) (2001), and The Puppet and the Dwarf (2003)—deal in large part with Christian thought: considerable stretches of them are best described as pagan works of Christian philosophical theology. Zizek is the youngest of my exemplars and is the only one reared and educated under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact rather than NATO. This is important: it means that 1968, when Zizek was not yet twenty, was for him the year of the Prague Spring, not the year of pseudo-revolutionary excitements on the streets of Paris. It means, too, that the sentimentality about “real socialism” so easy for and attractive to his French and English counterparts was never a live option for him. His struggle was not to find a position from which to criticize socialism without capitulating to the rampant market; it was, rather, to find the theoretical resources with which to retrieve a properly revolutionary stance that could carry conviction to an affluent Western audience born after 1950, for many of whom the pressing question is not where the revolution is coming from, but rather whether plastic surgery or Westernized Buddhism (a bête noire of Zizek’s) is the best route to personal fulfillment.
Zizek is, nonetheless, a soi-disant Marxist who is more likely to quote Lenin than Marx—and more likely to quote Jacques Lacan than either. This last name—that of a famously obscure French psychoanalyst and theorist who died in 1981 and whose legacy is as hotly contested among his followers as is that of Vatican II among Catholic theologians—indicates another way in which Zizek differs from my other exemplars (though he is most like Eagleton in this respect): it is that he is at least as interested in the cure of souls as in the revolution’s coming. Or, perhaps better, that he wants to be able to apply his theoretical resources not only to the political economy but also to the libidinal, the psychological, and the aesthetic. This is why, like Eagleton, he writes about popular culture, especially film, as much as about pure theory. Abstruse Lacanian technicalities and sparkling Chestertonian paradoxes are as often juxtaposed to discussions of Julia Roberts as of Jürgen Habermas; and Zizek is the only theorist known to me who attempts elucidation of Christ’s two natures by way of analysis of the relation between Judy and Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the two women, while different in every significant behavior, are one and the same; the film’s culmination, taken by Zizek as a representation of faith’s dawning, is Jimmy Stewart’s realization of the two women’s identity just as they—she—die). Zizek’s theoretical ambition is enormous and may be matched by his energy: he wants to explain everything, and has written forty or so books in (at least) three languages during the past two decades as the first steps in an attempt to do so.
What, then, about his recent forays into Christian philosophical theology? His favored Christian interlocutors are St. Paul and G. K. Chesterton, and he treats both with respect as providing workable answers to his central theoretical question, which concerns the possibility of a politics of truth. By this he means a politics that identifies the unconditional demand of ethics (a life authentically constituted by doing the right thing) with the full demand of a radical politics. On Belief begins with an endorsement of a Southern Baptist preacher’s view that if ethics—being a good person—is disjoined from belief in Christ by being given value independently of such belief, Christianity is thereby eviscerated. According to the preacher, Christians should say that if you don’t have faith you’re damned, no matter how (ethically) good you may be.
Zizek does not endorse all the particulars of this form of Christianity (he ridicules the sartorial and tonsorial preferences of Southern Baptists). But he does endorse the logic of the position, which is that of universalism stricto sensu: there is only one thing that matters and it matters in just the same way for everyone. This is, moreover, a universalism that refuses liberalism’s privatization of the ethical and its relegation of the political to the pragmatic. Zizek wants what he calls a materialist fundamentalism and thinks that the only way to get it is by drawing from the thought of those who were able to represent in their writings what it would mean to “out-universalize universal power.” These figures include Lenin, Lacan (rightly read), St. Paul, and G. K. Chesterton—and in the three books under discussion here, the last two get much more play than the first two.
The principal claimants to universal power at the beginning of the third millennium, thinks Zizek (in essential agreement with Eagleton and Badiou), are liberal democracy (in politics) and the market (in economics). These will, if you let them, define you exhaustively by your choices as a consumer and will permit you only a political life ordered by a set of formal rights and duties—to vote, to maintain privacy, to be left alone, to purchase, to consume, phantasmatically (a favorite Zizekian word) to imagine meanings in the privacy of your chamber. This claim to universal power can only be resisted by the self-sacrificial gesture of renunciation most clearly evident, thinks Zizek, in Christ’s acceptance of death on the cross. Gestures like these maintain agency: they do not abandon the self to the principalities and powers by accepting the division between the ethical and the political offered by those powers, but they also pay the inevitable price for this refusal, which is to have the agent’s identity radically changed—killed and resurrected. Here is a typically overheated Zizekian way of putting this:
The Christian answer is that, precisely, the tension between the pacifying Law and the excessive superego is not the ultimate horizon of our experience: it is possible to step out of this domain, not into the fake imaginary bliss, but into the Real of an act; it is possible to cut the Gordian knot of transgression and guilt.
“The Real of an act”—elsewhere, Zizek calls this “the breakout” in the sense of a jailbreak. The jail in question is constituted by the “vicious dialectic” of the Law (Zizek’s upper-casing of “Law” is self-consciously Pauline) and its “obscene supplement,” which is the transgressive desire inevitably generated by the law, together with the superego’s necessarily failed attempts to constrain and cancel that transgressive desire. There is, thinks Zizek, only one way out of this prison, and that is to suspend the dialectic that constitutes it, and to do so by means of love. Love does not actively rebel against the Law’s demand by revolution or violence: to do so would be transgressive, falsely heroic. Neither does love accept its submission to and definition by the Law by projecting fantasies of escape into some ideal realm beyond politics (genetic or surgical immortality; heaven as utopia). No, instead one simply removes oneself from the dialectic by renouncing it: like Medea or Sethe (in Toni Morrison’s Beloved) or Abraham, one kills (or shows one’s willingness to kill) the precious thing that keeps one subject to the dialectic, and one does so out of fidelity to and love for what one kills; or, like Christ, one fulfills the Law by accepting death, and in so doing gives “birth to a new subject no longer rooted in a particular substance, redeemed of all particular links.” Zizek’s interest here (and this he takes from Lacan) is in the self-referential gesture that appears to destroy or damage the one making it, but in fact transforms him by liberating him from what seemed an impossible dilemma. This self-referential gesture is “the Real of an act,” and its ideal type is Christ’s crucifixion.
It may seem from all this that Zizek is Christian in all but name. But that would be far from the truth. What interests him about Christianity (as it also interests Badiou) is the conceptual resources it offers for the depiction of a community of those free from political and economic domination. This community, as he says, is constituted by the Holy Spirit, and its members live as though their lives have been given to them as an excessive gift that can only be redeemed by living furiously (this is Chesterton’s language) but at the same time by living as though it were a matter of complete indifference whether life continues at all. Put differently: the Holy Spirit brings into being a community of love, which is to say a community fully within the Law without any possibility of transgression, because transgression is possible only for those still subject to the superego’s obscene supplement to the Law. Zizek might have quoted (though he doesn’t, so far as I can tell) Augustine’s “ama et fac quod vis”—love and do what you will. A Zizekian reading of this would say that loving action removes the Law’s obscene supplement. And this, so far as it goes, is indeed a thoroughly Christian reading.
But for Zizek the community brought into being by the Holy Spirit is not the Church. The Church could become the (true) Church, in his view, only if it, too, made the self-referential gesture of abnegation:
In what is perhaps the highest example of Hegelian Aufhebung, it is possible today to redeem this core of Christianity only in the gesture of abandoning the shell of its institutional organization. . . . The gap here is irreducible: either one drops the religious form, or one maintains the form but loses the essence.
What Zizek does not see is that the Church here below is constituted precisely by the endless repetition of the self-abnegatory gestures he praises: the Pope is servus servorum Dei (the servant of the servants of God), the most powerful man in the world precisely because of his renunciation of power; the endlessly repeated eucharistic feast places the Church daily under erasure before its Lord; and the most characteristically ecclesial confession is that offered by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, according to which Paul is, he says, the first among sinners. Zizek may mean that no institutional form is appropriate to Christianity; but that would be a perfectionism which every good materialist (and Zizek claims to be one) should reject. If, then, there is an institutional form appropriate to the community brought into being by the Holy Spirit, Zizek offers no convincing reasons for denying that it is the Church.
These yearnings of pagan or half-pagan cultural theorists for a Christianity half-forgotten or never properly known are not all of the same sort. Lyotard’s libidinal desire for the supremely effective différend is in almost every important way at odds with Badiou’s and Zizek’s yearning for a truly liberative understanding of the human. And although Eagleton’s retrieval of a broadly Christian virtue theory does serve political goals not far from those of Zizek and Badiou, he shows less interest than either of them in exploring the grammar of specifically Christian views. It is difficult, for example, to imagine him offering a theory of Christ’s atonement, while Zizek is eager to do so. What all four have in common, however, is that they are instances of pagan yearning for Christian intellectual gold. Christian thinkers, theologians, and philosophers will find much to quarrel with in the particulars of what they argue; but those are quarrels that should have begun long since. For the pagans, Christianity is increasingly attractive; for us Christians, now as always, what the pagans have to say is of interest as an occasion for restating the gospel to the world, and for understanding more fully what we have been entrusted with. We should be paying close attention.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Brazos Press).
Books Discussed in This Essay
By Terry Eagleton. Basic Books. 256 pp. $25
The Gatekeeper: A Memoir.
By Terry Eagleton. St. Martin’s Press. 192 pp. $19.95.
Saints and Scholars.
By Terry Eagleton. Verso, 1987.
Figures of Dissent.
By Terry Eagleton. Verso. 224 pp. $25.
By Jean-François Lyotard. Éditions de Minuit, 1974. Translated into English as Libidinal Economy. Indiana University Press. 275 pp. $22.95.
La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir.
By Jean-François Lyotard. Éditions de Minuit, 1979. Translated into English as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press. 110 pp. $16.95 paper.
By Jean-François Lyotard.
Éditions de Minuit, 1983. Translated into English as The Différend: Phrases in Dispute. University of Minnesota Press. 208 pp. $17.95 paper.
Leçons sur l’analytique du sublime.
By Jean-François Lyotard. Éditions Galilee, 1991. Translated into English as Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Stanford University Press. 246 pp. $21.95 paper.
La Confession d’Augustin.
By Jean-François Lyotard. Éditions Galilee, 1998. Translated into English as The Confession of Augustine.
Stanford University Press. 96 pp. $17.95 paper.
Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme
. By Alain Badiou. Presses Universitaires de France, 1997. Translated into English as Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.
Stanford University Press. 128 pp. $15.95 paper.
L’Être et l’événement.
By Alain Badiou. Éditions Seuil, 1988. Not translated into English.
L’Éthique: Essai sur la conscience du mal.
By Alain Badiou. Hatier, 1993. Translated into English as Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Verso. 224 pp. $16 paper.
The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity.
By Slavoj Zizek. MIT Press. 190 pp. $16.95 paper.
By Slavoj Zizek. Routledge. 176 pp. $12.95 paper.
The Fragile Absolute—Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting for?
By Slavoj Zizek. Verso. 188 pp. $16.